3 July 2023

When it comes to tech, Britain should take a leaf out of Macron’s book

By Rolf Merchant

The UK’s proud boast about being the home of European tech business doesn’t have quite the same conviction it used to. 

As a recent report from techUK put it, ‘over recent years we have fallen off the pace and our delivery has faltered’.

For some people in the tech sector, that might be an understatement. The blockers to growth and expansion for British tech firms are mounting, whether that be the lack of later stage investment capital, visa difficulties, a lack of lab space for life sciences, and questionable decisions by the Competition and Markets Authority.

The upshot is a steady stream of bad press and an overall case of ‘bad vibes’. 

That’s not to say things are terminal. Better policy making and implementation, along the lines that techUK has spelled out, will undoubtedly improve matters.

But one reason why the UK is losing momentum stems from the lack of a uniting vision for the tech sector and a compelling story to go with it. 

After Brexit, the UK could have moved quickly to cement its entrepreneurial reputation by outlining a new strategy for the tech sector. There was an opportunity to capture some of the renewed interest in the UK from across the globe as it began a new chapter. 

Alas, that didn’t happen. However, the opportunity has not been entirely missed.   

The Government could still commit to establishing this sector vision and undertake something akin to what would corporate types might call a ‘brand reset’.

An example of how to do this can be found across the Channel. I doubt many CapX readers are ardent fans of President Macron, but in championing the tech sector at least, he has done a very good job.

Back in 2019 Macron announced an ambitious and clear objective: having 25 ‘unicorns’ by 2025. More recently, he said he wanted to see 10 French IPOs by 2025. This clarity of purpose, ambition and boldness is missing from the UK at the moment. Instead, we have vague desires for our tech sector and nothing concrete. 

France has excelled in marketing its credentials as a home for tech companies. It has ‘sold’ its offer cleverly. Take the creation of La French Tech, its startup backing-organisation. Notice how the name itself is anglicised. It shows a determination to present something fresh and something global, countering narratives about it being hard to do business in France. It demonstrates an awareness that opinions need changing. 

It is actually a creation that pre-dates Macron, but he has stuck with it and maintained this cohesive brand. In comparison, the UK pitch has become bland: we are always hearing the usual lines about the advantages of common law, excellent professional services, great universities and so on. It’s become stale and repetitive. 

Then we see how Macron has given energetic and very personal backing to the tech mission. He himself is a great salesman, someone who is supremely confident and always working the room. Macron has consistently celebrated French tech companies’ success with fanfare. He prioritises sitting down with global tech leaders like Elon Musk and Sam Altman, which creates a good image. 

Macron won’t always win fans with this sharp-elbowed approach but it is proving effective by projecting his nation’s support for the sector. In comparison, the tech sector flag-waving by British premiers has been patchy. It’s often said we British are great innovators but poor salesmen – perhaps our politicians need to change that. 

None of this is to say that there is anything inherently better about France’s offer for tech companies. Most analysts would agree that Britain trumps France on capital, talent, regulation, and ease of doing business – for now, anyway. 

Nor is it to ignore the many hard interventions and investments the French government has made in supporting tech. It’s not all about sales and marketing but the image and the story of what a government is aiming for is absolutely critical. France is the example par excellence. 

The UK needs to borrow from the French playbook and create a new vision for UK tech and some serious objectives underpinning it. 

And of course we need our political leaders to tell the story of what the UK is doing, and make it compelling, creative and consistent. 

Without this, the bad vibes will continue and in a decade we’ll look back at one enormous missed opportunity to be a global tech leader.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Rolf Merchant is a Director at Audley, a global strategic advisory firm.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.