Friday, May 3, 2013

Dirigisme wins, French entrepreneurs lose

By now, the whole tech world has heard the story first reported Tuesday afternoon in the Wall Street Journal about Yahoo’s failed effort to buy Dailymotion. As the story opened:

Dailymotion was on track to be the first big acquisition for Yahoo Inc. YHOO +2.76% Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, after her company signed a provisional deal to buy control of the online-video website from France Télécom FTE.FR -0.59% SA. Then Ms. Mayer's No. 2 executive met with French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg.

At an April 12 meeting in Mr. Montebourg's Paris office, the minister told Yahoo's chief operating officer, Henrique de Castro, and France Télécom's chief financial officer, Gervais Pellissier, that he didn't want 75% of a rare French Internet success story to be sold to an American Web giant, according to people briefed on the meeting.

"I won't let you sell one of France's best startups," Mr. Montebourg told Mr. Pelissier, his voice raised, according to people briefed on the meeting. "You don't know what you're doing."
Facing an uproar, the minister clarified:
“The minister has expressed his desire that a partnership between Yahoo and Orange should be built on an equal base, mutually beneficial to both companies,” his office said in a statement.
It was widely reported that the government was willing to let Yahoo get 49% — or maybe even 50% — but not beyond.

This has so many fascinating implications. First, Yahoo is back to the drawing board in trying to build up its video capabilities.

Second, are the policies of the socialist government — after five years of crypto-Gaullist Sarkozy — going to hurt trade and investment with France. From the New York Times:
The government’s intervention has alarmed entrepreneurs in France, who say it sends a bad message to foreign investors, especially at a time when the country is seeking their money to help jump-start its economy.

“I’m sure France will be downgraded in foreign investors’ eyes because they will think it is too complicated,” said Frédéric Montagnon, co-founder of OverBlog, a blogging platform.

The move to block a takeover by Yahoo comes even as France has been stepping up its efforts to attract foreign investment — much needed, analysts say, to pull the country out of a slump in which gross domestic product declined by 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter of last year.
Or, as the headline on the Financial Times proclaimed: “Dirigisme dies hard in France”.

The rebuff to Yahoo comes after Montebourg feuded with other foreign capitalists. From the London Telegraph:
But it is not the first time Mr Montebourg, on the Left flank of President Hollande’s Socialists, has been accused of damaging the country’s business image.

Last year he threatened to nationalise an ArcelorMittal steel plant in Floranges, north-eastern France. More recently he got into a spectacular public spat with American tyre tycoon Maurice Taylor, calling the Titan International CEO “extremist” after he pulled out of talks to buy a Goodyear factory over worker demands.

“The extremists are in your government, who have no idea how to build a business,” Mr Taylor fired back.
But what I think is most important is the message it sends to French entrepreneurs, who know that for the next four years (at least), they can’t build an economically significant firm and sell it to the highest bidder. From Business Week:
“It sends a very bad signal to the outside world, saying that because you aren’t French, we prohibit you from being involved,” says Christophe Chausson, managing partner of Chausson Finance, a Paris-based venture capital group. “To develop startups, you have to do the opposite of what the government has done. Dailymotion needs a lot of capital, hundreds of millions of euros, to develop and buy rights to content.”
The same article noted that the decision hit home for the company’s founders:
Perhaps the most poignant reactions to the collapse of the Yahoo deal came from Dailymotion’s co-founders, Benjamin Bejbaum and Olivier Poitrey, who started the company in Poitrey’s Paris apartment in 2005. “It shouldn’t have been THEIR decision,” Poitrey posted on his Twitter account on April 30. He recently moved to Silicon Valley to head a team that’s developing Dailymotion’s mobile offerings.

Added Bejbaum in a tweet today: “On Monday, there was hope. On Thursday we freaked out. The French economy is not a toy.”
Like Poitrey, some expatriate French are thriving in Silicon Valley. But I see a huge opportunity for French-speaking Switzerland (with access to capital and home of a first-rate technical university) or Belgium (already home of French tax refugees) to create entrepreneurial clusters and attract the best and the brightest minds trapped in President Hollande’s workers’ paradise.

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