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Do the French have a word for “entrepreneur”?

September 3, 2009


President George W. Bush reputedly told Tony Blair one day that “the French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur.” Not only was he etymologically confused, he may have been downright wrong. The French have created a lot of successful global businesses over the last 40 years, although these businesses do not fit the classic Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurial model. The French believe in the power of government funding to launch and sustain global enterprises. As a French-born, University of Chicago-educated boy, this success has generated a personal schizophrenia between the natural interventionism of my origin and the laissez-faire convictions acquired from my alma mater. As a result, I have slept badly for most of my adult life. 

In the grand, centrally controlled tradition of Napoleon, French political leaders believe state governments can and should play a role in business. In fact, Jacques Attali, an influential advisor to most recent Presidents of France, from the socialist François Mitterand to the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, advocates that France’s competitive advantage over the last 40 years has been its ability to centrally fund major infrastructural developments. Success stories have included Airbus, the French-led, European consortium of aircraft manufacturers taking on Boeing in civil aviation; the French national utility EDF establishing a strong global position in nuclear energy; and the national railroad company SNCF and its supplier Alsthom jointly learning to build and operate TGVs, the French high-speed train. To add insult to injury, Attali contends that the U.S. has begun a gradual decline because of its capitalistic excesses – “similar to the Roman empire in its decadent phase”, he adds for good measure – pointing out that the center of the economic world is now leaving the U.S. to continue its eastward shift toward China. 

It is difficult to argue that the U.S. free market model is thriving, particularly at a time where the U.S. economic policy under the Obama administration has become vastly interventionist to support banks and automotive companies, and is trying to establish a government healthcare mandate. It is equally hard to deny that the stock of China is rising compared to the U.S. So maybe we let the French win this one for now and grant that they indeed have a word for “entrepreneur,” which is “l’état entrepreneur.”

The ultimate economic model, though, remains to be crafted. There is an undeniable global appetite for tightening the social compact between citizens, including in the more traditionally free-for-all U.S. market. At the same time, government organizations still suffer from relative inefficiency, including at Airbus, SNCF and EDF. The future may lie in a new form of technology-enabled, bottom-up democracy where politicians co-create the economic agenda with their citizens. We have seen evidence of co-creation seeping slowly into politics, with the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama in the U.S. (and some Republicans rapidly catching up), and the presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal in France (and more recently Nicolas Sarkozy). The Hong Kong administration and the government of Andhra Pradesh in India have offered advance glimpses of this future, technology-rich form of government, where the social contract is built piece-by-piece by citizens at the local level, rather than mandated from the top, fostering a more efficient use of resources and preventing the excesses of raw capitalism. We should encourage citizens to build this economic agenda with their local businesses. There is already a powerful local food trend. Why not a strong local business trend? 

Only then – when co-creation of the economic agenda by citizens at the local level becomes the “third way”– will I get to sleep, finally at peace in this Franco-American reconciliation of economic models.

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