France Is Cisco’s First Pick as Chambers Scans for Startups

Chambers: France Will Become Europe's Startup Nation
  • Cisco chairman bets on France amid changing environment
  • Company to ramp up spending in France regardless of Brexit

When Cisco Chairman John Chambers bet on France’s tech scene two-and-a-half years ago, his friends said he was making a mistake. Brexit may prove them wrong.

Cisco last year vowed to invest $200 million in French startups, doubling the amount it had announced months before. Ask Chambers if he made the right bet, and he’ll tell you everything from business to politics is proving him right, even as months of strikes against President Francois Hollande’s labor bill extend into the summer.

"When I said France will be the next big thing, people said you’ve got to be kidding," Chambers said. "Now we’re seeing confidence and VC investments building up."

France is in pole position to lead Europe on the digital front over the next decade, ahead of its neighbors and an exiting U.K., Chambers said in an interview in Paris on Thursday, where he also addressed the Viva Tech conference and was scheduled to lunch with Hollande.

“France is the country I would bet on in Europe more than any other," Chambers said. Brexit is an illustration of the increasingly unstable and changing environment that countries and businesses have to evolve in, and that France is best-equipped to face, he said.

Chambers said he’s come back seven times since he "fell in love with France" over two years ago, and the promising trend he first noticed has been materializing: the French business community and government appear aligned on making digital a priority for the country, and the number of French startups abroad, including at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, has been growing rapidly.

"France has shown remarkable ability to adjust within changing environment -- it has positioned itself to lead during this period of massive change," Chambers said. "When I said this in 2014, my friends said John you’ve been right about previous market transitions, but this one you’re going to miss."

The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union has prompted questions on whether investments will shift away from London and where they’ll go, into industries from finance to technology. Hollande has punctuated his mandate with promises of making France a friendly place for investors on everything from taxation to allowing disruption of established industries by internet companies. 

The French President, whose popularity score is at a record-low according to polls, has faced discontent over a labor reform aimed at allowing companies to increase working hours with minimal compensation, cap severance pay and eliminate jobs more easily. Unions have protested for four months, while business leaders have criticized the plan as insufficient.

"We’re not going to spend less in the U.K. We’re going to maintain our investments there as planned," Chambers said. "We’re just investing more in France, and we would’ve regardless."

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