A forgettable election campaign just wrapped up: François Hollande is now the President of the French Republic. Time spent on foreign issues during last week's one-on-one television debate mirrored the rest of the campaign: less than fifteen minutes in a 2hrs 50 minutes bout, one that left most viewers yawning. This campaign was petty, gallic-centered, oozing with demagoguery and completely devoid of great projects or ambitions for the country.
Mr. Hollande himself epitomizes this political flabbiness. He's the default candidate. Last year, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sexual implosion, Hollande kept running his tiny electoral diesel engine in low gear, bereft of grand ideas, unable to get into overdrive. He didn't win because of his track record -- he has no such thing. He was both a mediocre party leader and the weak manager of the poorest French department, which he left heavily indebted. Mr. Hollande didn't win because he embodies any kind of grand aspirations either; other than getting into the Élysée palace, he has none. Instead, he portrays himself as a "normal guy" after -- it's also fair to mention -- the hyper-kinetic, agitated, communication-obsessed, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sure thing: with François Hollande, the country will rest; it will settle into gentle indolence as the rest of the world evolves and interacts. Most likely, the Euro zone crisis will heat up with a worsening situation in Spain where a quarter of the population -- and half of the youngest citizens -- are unemployed. Most likely also, ratings agencies will further downgrade French debt -- since 1973, the country never had a balanced budget. Meanwhile, Mr. Hollande will fulfill his electoral promise of hiring 60,000 additional teachers; this while the country needs less teachers (there are less kids in front of them) but higher paid ones, along with higher respect and better working conditions. He’ll travel to Brussels and renegotiate the European Treaty, pitching the notion of growth (eureka!) against the "austerians". On this, he might be right somehow (see last week's Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times titled Death of a Fairy Tale.)
All this doesn't mean the Socialist presidency will be as dangerous as too many like to say. People making more than one million euros per year will indeed enter a 75% tax bracket: The new president claimed "[he] doesn't like rich people" (a few years ago, he assigned a threshold of wealth to the equivalent of $60,000 a year). But vis-à-vis the much-bashed "Finance", he's likely to act as a pragmatist. A possible chief of staff for Hollande could be Jean-Pierre Jouyet, currently chairman of the Financial Markets Authority and former minister of European affairs. There is no shortage of left-leaning talented people, and this middling leader is likely to surround himself wisely -- on many counts, he can't do worse than his predecessor.
France won't fall from the cliff, nor will it shine brightly under the new regime.
And it won't innovate either.
What made this campaign so depressing was both sides seemed to willfully ignore one of the most potent engines of the economy, that is innovation and a country’s ability to foster it. Both candidates seemed totally disconnected from critical challenges in which France is failing in every possible way.
Take higher education. The failure is unequivocal, regardless of political leanings. France might have about 80 universities, most of them second or third rate and producing mostly unemployable people. And if you dare a transatlantic comparison, you generate killer statistics. France’s budget for higher education and research is the equivalent of Harvard University's endowment (€24 billion or $31 billion for French universities and public laboratories and $32 billion of cash reserves for Harvard). Overall, France's spending per student is less than half of the US -- and 15 times less if you compare to the Ivy League colleges. French faculty members, unions and politicians have made their best efforts to disconnect universities from the business world. They’ve been remarkably successful. As a result, Gallic colleges have become poorer, and largely unable to cope with the legions of students that land onto their benches, facing underpaid and unmotivated professors.
Of course, France has a different way to produce -- and to reproduce -- its elites. Two highways, actually: l'Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) and l'Ecole Polytechnique. Mr. Hollande is an offspring of the first (so was his former partner, Ségolène Royal, the unlucky but picturesque 2007 presidential candidate.) As someone who grew inside this comfy seraglio and who traveled very little abroad, the new French president can't envision an alternative to this trusted model for running the country. As for Polytechnique, it produces the top French engineers, a caste in itself, that has little to do with those graduating from top anglo-saxon colleges. The difference between a Polytechnique student and a Stanford one is the former will dream to manage, one day, a large industrial concern such as Thales (defense electronics) or the energy group Total, while the Stanford grad will want to see his/her name on a campus building -- after a creating a successful business, needless to say. As the New York Times noted in a recent story about the return of class war,
Just under half of France’s 40 largest companies are run by graduates of just two schools: ENA,(..) and École Polytechnique (...). Together the schools produce only about 600 graduates a year. There are fewer than 6,000 ENA graduates alive today, compared with at least 160,000 Oxford alumni.
This doesn’t constitute the best soil for a start-up culture. And the venture capital activity is not likely to help either. In 2011, French VC funds invested €822 million in start-ups, a 21% drop vs. 2010. Even worse, 64% of these funds went to second or later rounds of financing, initial funding collected a mere 8% of the total. Not exactly a risk-prone attitude.
Again, international comparisons hurt. French VC invested last year about €13 or $16 per company and per inhabitant; that compares to $93 in the United Sates and more than $110 in Israel. Speaking of Israel, if we take into account the money flowing from abroad, the figures are even more staggering as VC funding per capita rose to $280 in 2011 according to IVC-KPMG data:
In 2011, 546 Israeli high-tech companies attracted $2.14billion from local and foreign venture investors, the highest amount in 11 years. This is almost 70 percent above the $1.26 billion raised by 391 companies in 2010 and 91 percent above the $1.12 billion raised in 2009.
In their excellent book Start-up Nation, the story of Israel economic Miracle, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer also write:
Comparing absolute numbers, Israel -- a country of just 7.1 million people --attracted close to $2 billion [in 2008] in venture capital, as much as flowed to the UK, Germany and France combined. (...) In addition to boasting the highest density of start-ups in te world (a total of 3,850, one for every 1,844 Israelis), more Israeli companies are listed on the Nasdaq [list here] than all companies from the entire European continent.
To complete this quote: about 250 companies originating from Israel had an IPO on the Nasdaq. Today 50 companies remain listed vs. 47 European companies including 3 French ones.
None of the above was mentioned, even remotely, during the French election campaign. Nicolas Sarkozy did very little about fostering innovation -- he didn't have a clue. As for François Hollande, the strongest part of its electorate (largely composed of teachers and other public servants) opposes any rapprochement between private sector and public higher education. And let's not mention the underlying "ideology" of venture capital, carried interest, IPO's, flexible employment rules, etc. Hollande's supporters will also oppose any removal of cobwebs from the 102-year-old labor code that greatly complicates the management of companies employing 50 or more people. As a result, France has 2.4 times more companies with 49 employees than with 50, read this story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
This makes France a rather start-down nation. Nothing to celebrate.