Commentary: Once Upon A Time, Bill Gates Came To France...

Gates would be horrified by the obstacles that face entrepreneurs here

Every so often, a European politician stands up and implores citizens to act more like American-style entrepreneurs. The politicians seem to think that they can overnight inspire a nation to forge dynamic new industries. The latest appeal came on Jan. 22, when Jean-Claude Trichet, governor of France's central bank, gave a newspaper interview in which he called on young French people to follow in Bill Gates's footsteps, turning creativity into job-creating business.

Monsieur Trichet may want entrepreneurs, but the fact is France lacks the basic conditions in which entrepreneurs thrive. For instance, just for fun, let's pretend that Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates comes to Paris this month to launch a hot new startup. It's not so far-fetched an idea, since technological skills are abundant in France. French programmers have even developed a handful of Microsoft products, such as Quick C and Visual C++.

As Gates's plane touches down at Charles de Gaulle, the software mogul is thinking big. He wants to build another billion-dollar company in five years and outmaneuver rival Netscape at the same time. French software programmers are his new secret weapon. But as he sits down later that morning with a croissant and cafe au lait to read the business press, he develops heartburn.

At Credit Foncier, 3,000 employees have taken a chief executive and seven managers hostage for six days because the government planned to liquidate the failed mortgage bank. "What's wrong with closing down a bust bank?" a perplexed Gates might ask himself. "Is this kind of employee terrorism common here?" Next, Gates picks up a weekly magazine, where he reads that 50% of France's youth dream of becoming civil servants--even though few new jobs are being created. Why, he wonders, would energetic young people prefer bureaucratic drudgery to the excitement of, say, helping start a new company?

Gates gazes sadly out the window at the lovely Parisian architecture. Suddenly, his view is deflected by a column of striking transportation workers, who want to lower the retirement age to 55 from 60. He turns back to his papers and finds that unions in the utility sector have secured a 32-hour workweek. "That's about six hours a day, five days a week," the entrepreneur calculates. "Gee, I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and I love it." Again, he wonders why his friends back home get so much more pleasure out of productivity.

Gates heads across town to meet his new team of developers, but he gets stuck in traffic jams caused by the strike. That night, a troubled Gates logs on to his notebook computer and scrolls through a year of French headlines, falling into a deep depression. "It's unreal. The national budget deficit tops $57 billion, a slew of state companies are hemorrhaging, and the social security system is bankrupt, but these folks are demanding government bailouts every day," he mutters.

Then comes the last straw. As he scrolls through the December headlines, his blood curdles: France's Parliament has approved a bill to levy heavy taxes and other charges on stock options. "Get me out of this place," Gates cries. "It's an entrepreneur's Titanic!" He calls his U.S. banker to cancel the investment in France. "It's impossible," he moans. "Companies seem to exist to provide jobs, not to make profits. The government is everywhere. Let's go to Poland. At least in Warsaw people want to get ahead."

As you see, Monsieur Trichet, even America's most fabled entrepreneur would likely have a tough time building the French equivalent of a Microsoft. As one of France's top economists, you know that. As long as the government preserves the status quo, French men and women with Bill Gates's capabilities will spend their lives working for large companies in yesterday's industries. Few 21st century jobs will be created in France, and jobs from older industries will continue to decline. That's why the unemployment rate is so high. People won't give up the rich benefits and security of working as bureaucrats until there's a chance of real payoff.

So while the desire to create an entrepreneurial class is noble, one can't be conjured up in an instant. And looking at France through Bill Gates's eyes, you can see why there are so few Europeans trying to follow in his footsteps.

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