A technology hub focused on “deep tech”, particularly artificial intelligence, has taken root in Paris, attracting both investment and technology talent.

Historically France has had a dubious reputation within the technology sector, with rigid labour laws and heavy taxes on wealth and stock options deterring would-be entrepreneurs. Many, with the exception of successes such as ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar, have left for greener pastures. The scene is rapidly changing, however, particularly in the capital.

Nicolas Brusson, co-founder of BlaBlaCar, says he is seeing a surge in entrepreneurial activity. In 2016 France had 590 rounds of capital raising – more than any country in Europe, according to Dealroom, which watches tech industry trends. The Economist reports that while slightly more capital went to start-ups in the UK, “the rate of increase in France was dramatic”.

The gains can be attributed, in part, to earlier investments in infrastructure. Oussama Ammar and Xavier Niel, who started French mobile operator Iliad, have set up training facilities and incubators which are now churning out entrepreneurs. Niel’s latest project is Station F in Paris, which he says will be the world's biggest start-up campus. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who described France as having “some of the most innovative technology companies in the world”, said her firm will take spaces in Station F.

Other changes are originating in France’s classrooms, with entrepreneurial ambitions rising among students, particularly those who intern with start-ups abroad. Of particular interest among graduates are start-ups in the “deep tech” sector, which includes emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data. Philippe Botteri, who oversees European investments for American venture-capital firm Accel, says 80% of his firm’s activity of late is in deep tech. Botteri also noted that France is fast becoming a top destination for capital on the strength of its graduates in these fields.

Jeremy Jawish, co-founder of Paris-based Shift Technology, which uses AI to detect fraudulent insurance claims, has gone so far as to call Paris “the next AI centre”. As evidence, Cisco and Facebook have both set up AI operations in Paris to attract local talent.

Some problems, such as France’s stiff labour laws, continue to pose barriers. But in this regard, the May 2017 presidential election could influence the future of technology in France. One candidate, Emmanuel Macron, championed digital growth when he served as economy minister. During his campaign, he has called on French expats to come home “to innovate”.

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