Niel and Drahi: Two French entrepreneurs with a certain je ne sais quoi

Whether or not former U.S. President George W. Bush actually did confide in former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that "the problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur" appears now to be a moot point; the phrase has joined the long list of "Bushisms" alleged to have been uttered by the former U.S. president during his eight years in office.

As a freelancer who moved to France and subsequently experienced the full gamut of emotions as a new "entrepreneur" or sole trader here (horror, followed by resignation and eventually acceptance), I do in a way sympathise with what the former president was possibly trying to say! Consult any forum for French and foreign freelancers or start-up businesses trying to navigate their way through the complex system of "auto entrepreneurs," "micro entrepreneurs" and "enterprises individuelles," and you soon get the impression that this is no easy matter. Those of us who stay in the freelance regime learn to cope and accept that this is just the way it is. Like it, or move country.

Recent developments do indicate that changes are afoot here, however; the French government has been busy reducing paperwork and bureaucracy, and introducing platforms for innovation such as 34 initiatives for innovation under the programme called "Nouvelle France Industrielle". There is still a deal of work ahead: unemployment continues to grow while the economy remains stale. Measures to support entrepreneurs who will create jobs, not to mention tax revenue, are desperately needed, is the view of many.

Nonetheless, the country's profile as a producer of entrepreneurs and canny risk takers must surely have been enhanced by the recent antics of two of its leading lights: Xavier Niel and Patrick Drahi.

Drahi has spent years quietly building up an empire of mobile and cable assets around the world under the Altice holding company, but recently burst onto the scene with a vengeance when he engaged in a very public battle with Martin Bouygues to win the hand of French operator SFR. Drahi won, despite the best efforts of the French establishment to prevent him: the government and others favoured a Bouygues tie-up.

Xavier Niel, meanwhile, has certainly been an extremely successful entrepreneur with a somewhat unusual track record, having started off by setting up a sex-chat service on Minitel--France's former online service that predated the Internet--and eventually establishing the Free telecoms brand in France. Now, Niel has gone a step further by making what some regard as an audacious bid for T-Mobile US.

Niel has even won the support of French government ministers, who have been critical of his price-cutting measures that sparked a long-lasting and game-changing price war on the French mobile market. Arnaud Montebourg, France's minister for the economy, productivity and digital technology, tweeted "Bravo" to Niel for his U.S. bid, and said France wished him luck!

Whether Niel will succeed is far from certain, and indeed many industry watchers clearly regard his bid as highly opportunistic. It has even been speculated that Iliad's T-Mobile US bid could be an elaborate ploy to put pressure on Bouygues to lower its price expectations for Bouygues Telecom and thus enable Iliad to achieve its previous goal of buying the French telecoms unit. Reports have also emerged that Sprint and SoftBank are abandoning their own plans to bid for T-Mobile US. At the same time, T-Mobile US is widely expected to reject Iliad's $15 billion (€11.2 billion) bid, possibly on Wednesday. Whatever the outcome is, Niel has certainly made his mark well beyond France's borders.--Anne

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