Emmanuel Macron’s new tech visa will make France an unlikely laboratory for globalization

Bonjour, startups!
Bonjour, startups!
Image: Reuters/Martin Bureau/Pool
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Emmanuel Macron wants France to become a country of startups, and not just for French founders. That’s why the newly elected president is talking up a new tech visa intended to make it easier for fast-growing companies to hire foreign talent and for entrepreneurs to set up shop in France.

France is not traditionally known as an easy place to do business, but the move stands in contrast to more business-friendly countries like the US and UK, which are shaking up their immigration policies in ways that may squeeze entrepreneurs.

The French process appears “significantly” simpler than in the US, which doesn’t have a dedicated visa for tech workers, according to Kristie De Pena, senior immigration council at the Niskanen Center, a think tank. America’s H-1B visa is cumbersome and is capped at 85,000 spots per year. There are also signs that foreign workers feel less welcome in the US, as the number of applicants fell this year, to fewer than 200,000 from 236,000 in 2016. The International Entrepreneur Rule was designed to help US startups by creating a special visa category, but it has been delayed to March 2018, and De Pena reckons it is probably “dead in the water.”

When the US impedes the flow of high-skilled entrepreneurs, other countries will look to attract them instead. Canada is already doing that with its fast-track program for foreign workers, according to Tahmina Watson, an attorney at Watson Immigration Law in Seattle.

In the UK, meanwhile, it’s been a year since the vote to leave the EU, and future rules on the rights of EU immigrants after Britain quits the bloc are far from finalized. Nearly half of the UK’s highly skilled workers from elsewhere in the EU are considering leaving in the next five years, according to a survey by Deloitte. Still, the UK has a substantial head-start on other European hubs in the capital-raising game, a crucial consideration for startup founders.

Of course, it takes a lot more than a friendly visa regime to build a technology powerhouse. World-class educational institutions and easy access to funds are crucial, and the US and UK are far ahead of rivals on both those counts.

France suffers from its reputation of stifling bureaucracy and hostility towards business—perceptions Macron is battling against. The world’s biggest startup campus, known as Station F, has just opened in Paris, another important statement of intent. But the coming years will test Macron’s vision for France as a hub for startups, and what role the nationalist instincts of Trump’s “America First” policies and the anti-immigration lobby in post-Brexit Britain may have in making it a reality.