Hollande turns startup advisor on billionaire’s tech campus
Francois Hollande

The ex-president is throwing his weight behind the French startup ecosystem as an up-and-coming growth driver

PARIS • On any day of the week, Station F, a former Paris train station-turned-startup incubator, is full of 20-something coders and founders, working among pool tables, arcade machines and Jeff Koons sculptures.

Lately, though, it has become the part-time office of an improbable new player: 63- year-old Francois Hollande.

Better known for being only the second Socialist president of France rather than an avid techie, Hollande now spends a part of his Mondays at Station F, which billionaire Xavier Niel is turning into a mega-campus for startups in central Paris. Facebook Inc COO Sheryl Sandberg dropped by there this year to unveil a Startup Garage, followed by other visitors such as Tony Fadell and Snap Inc’s Evan Spiegel.

Like Sandberg, Hollande is throwing his weight behind the French startup ecosystem as an up-and-coming growth driver, chaperoning entrepreneurs on strategy and helping find financing.

“Technology was one of the priorities of my time as president — it makes sense that I be here,” Hollande said in an interview at Station F, settling into a white plastic chair near spaces occupied by the likes of Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp, who’ve agreed to host and handhold emerging companies.

That claim aside, Hollande’s name seldom pops up in conversations about how the spotlight is shining on France’s ability to attract entrepreneurs. That credit usually goes to his successor, Emmanuel Macron.

After all, Hollande hasn’t always been the best friend of entrepreneurs. He announced a 75% tax for millionaires in his first year as president, a levy that he later dropped — in part thanks to pressure from Macron, who famously said France was turning into “Cuba without the sun”.

In contrast with US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance and the UK’s Brexit vote, President Macron used his vision of making France “a startup nation” as a cornerstone of his election campaign, inviting entrepreneurs and investors.

Still, Hollande is keen to reclaim some credit from Macron, who as his economy minister helped promote Station F. Then as president, Macron opened the centre at a glitzy ceremony in June.

The former president meets entrepreneurs a couple of hours each week as head of a non-profit foundation called “La France s’engage”, or “France Commits”, at his spot of Station F’s 34,000 sq m (366,000 sq ft) space, which is filled with conference rooms made from shipping-containers, foosball tables and art — including Koons’s Play-Doh sculpture.

“What entrepreneurs need most of the time isn’t money, it’s guidance on who to work with, different financing sources and mentoring,” Hollande said. — Bloomberg