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“We don’t have oil, but we do have ideas” is an expression that French people often use. And there is something to that. Photography, cars, bicycles, cinema, calculators, airplanes, microchips, photographic phones: much of what makes our modern lifestyles possible, had their origins in the clever minds of French engineers. That pioneering spirit also gave France the world’s first public internet connection. It was known as Minitel and was launched in 1978. It’s now a bit of a laughing stock in other countries, but that’s not really fair.

The Minitel network laid the foundation for an ecosystem of online services, shops and developers long before the rest of the world went online. Owing to this huge technological edge, France was relatively late when it came to the web. A gap that was quickly caught up with at the turn of this century, thanks in part to the very same Minitel. The little brown box with a compact keyboard and a green screen produced one of France’s, and perhaps Europe’s, greatest innovators: Xavier Niel.

The French Steve Jobs

At the age of 15 he got into programming on a ZX81 computer. Two years later he launched an erotically tinted online chat box on Minitel and is soon making more money than his parents do. He puts the profits back into sex shops and porn sites on Minitel and a few years later into one of France’s first internet providers too. He then starts his own provider, which he calls Free. In 2002 he was the first person in the world to launch a triple play subscription, known as the Freebox. This was a device with telephone, television and internet all in one for less than 30 euros a month. At that time, his competitors charged more than 50 euros for just an internet subscription. The Freebox quickly became a success, and a model that was adopted all over the world. Although in recent months things have been a bit disappointing for Free (the share price lost a third of its value last year), yet for many people Niel is still an innovation god comparable to Steve Jobs. President Emmanuel Macron also sees Xavier Niel as one of the heroes of France.

Niel is now one of the ten richest people in France. On a personal level, the billionaire also invests in a huge range of projects, both in France and in the rest of the world. In 2017 he opened Station F, the world’s largest start-up incubator, and is a shareholder of the daily newspaper Le Monde and a large number of other media outlets. He also founded 42, a school where everyone can learn coding for free. A subsidiary of that school opened in Amsterdam at the beginning of this year under the name Codam.

Start-up nation

Niel’s activities are music to Macron’s ears. He wants France to become the start-up nation of Europe and for many digital entrepreneurs such as Niel to join him. The French president himself is also taking part in this: this week it was announced that he has had an app developed that can now be found on the phones of all of his ministers. The app, which is modeled on software from the start-up Toucan Toco, keeps a close eye on things and is designed to check if they are at all efficient and if they implement reforms quickly enough. Whoever doesn’t manage to get a high score, will be kicked out. Innovation and politics go hand in hand. Whether this is progress is a different matter altogether.