Alexandre Stachtchenko is president of blockchain association La Chaintech and the co-founder of Blockchain Partner, a firm created by the merger of two French startups: Blockchain France and Labo Blockchain. Blockchain Partner offers blockchain consultation services in France.
In this opinion piece, Stachtchenko provides an in depth overview of the blossoming blockchain scene in France, arguing that now is the time to take official engagement in the tech to the next level.
How well does France perform in the blockchain field? It is an interesting question to raise when speaking about the country that represented the third biggest world presence at the CES 2017 in Las Vegas, just behind the US and China, and the second in terms of startups.
This article aims to present a quick panorama of the French blockchain situation.
Public authorities: Between consultation and experimentation
As of today, the French government has shown some interest in the technology, without yet having launched major initiatives in that field. Its main initiative was taken in March 2016 by the Ministry of Economy, when a decree was passed, based on crowdfunding laws, to allow debt-based instruments (mini-bonds) to be issued on a blockchain. If this first step is a success, the ministry envisaged "introducing this type of regulatory framework, for example, for unlisted securities”.
Several banks have already communicated some positivity around related projects, such as BNP Paribas along with the startup Smart Angels.
On the parliamentary level, an entire day dedicated to blockchain technology was organized in March 2016 at the National Assembly, with the participation of French blockchain startups (such as Blockchain Partner, Stratumn and Paymium), large companies (such as AXA and La Poste) and universities, researchers and public authorities. This was followed by another parliamentary forum in October 2016.
More recently, the Public Treasury has launched a public consultation to gather ideas on how to boost blockchain development in France. In May 2017, France Stratégie, the French Prime Minister’s cabinet for national strategies analysis, held several hearings on blockchain issues such as legal and social issues or regulations.
Similarly, several public institutions have started to take initiatives around the tech. For example, the French central bank has been working on an interbank proof-of-concept with the assistance of Blockchain Partner since last year. It also launched a Lab for blockchain startups last February.
La Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, a French public financial institution, has also launched a workgroup called LabChain to conduct experimentations with large companies such as BNP Paribas, AXA, etc, alongside a number of blockchain startups.
More recently, Finance Innovation, a French institution dedicated to fostering the French financial sector, is setting up a working group to guide the government over initiatives they will need to lead in the blockchain sector.
However, knowing that blockchain is still immature and complex, the legal status of blockchain technology is still open for debate. To tackle this issue, working groups have been launched with the participation of public authorities and lawyers.
Even though France has taken some initiatives concerning blockchain, its actions are still somewhat timid. I would argue that it is now time to go beyond organizing conferences and workshops. For instance, French authorities could set up real experimentations, as has been happening in many other countries.
There are many potential use cases for the technology being worked on elsewhere, from electronic voting secured on blockchain (Australia), to traceability of welfare spending (the UK), or land registry (Sweden and Georgia) and healthcare systems (US and Estonia).
The French ecosystem: Relatively small but dynamic and ambitious
Some large French companies have seen the threats and opportunities of blockchain and as a result have started experimenting with the technology to avoid being left behind.
As in the rest of the world, the first companies that have launched initiatives are the large banks, such as BNP Paribas, which has launched several proofs-of-concept (PoCs): for instance, an inter-company 'immediate' payment service, or the crowdfunding project mentioned above.
Other banks have joined the R3 banking blockchain consortium, including Société Générale, RCI Bank & Services and Natixis.
Meanwhile, some of the large financial institutions and the 'Big Four' auditing and consulting firms have created internal divisions to better understand and use blockchain technologies. Companies from other sectors are slowly building awareness around blockchain technology, and are starting to dig into it, for example SNCF (transport), Carrefour (retail) and Total (energy).
The French blockchain startup ecosystem is of medium size compared with leading nations, but is dynamic and blossoming, with several startups eager to take on the world.
Apart from Blockchain Partner, one of the most famous is Ledger, which raised €7m in March 2017, and is known for the quality and security of its hardware wallets.
Stratumn, which also raised €7m in May 2017, is another example of a well-known startup. The firm offers a platform for developing enterprise-level blockchain applications. Acinq is also a rising star in the international blockchain scene. A pioneer of Lightning Network implementations, its Eclair project attempts to tackle bitcoin's scaling issue.
More recently, iEx.ec, a startup focusing on distributed computing for 'dapps' (decentralized applications), raised more than €12m in less than three hours through an initial coin offering, or ICO. And there are many more companies, less known but also showing promise, such as Ledgys, Woleet and so on.
This crowd of startups is aware that to be stronger they need to work together. To that end, they have started meeting up and uniting in associations.
Blockchain associations: Collaboration and debate
French startups collaborate in associations to defend their interest and make their voice heard by public authorities.
The general impression is that, for the moment, only big players such as banks or main financial institutions are giving their opinion to the regulators and public institutions, mostly focused on consortium blockchains. In this context, startups' ideas and issues need to be listened to and dealt with, to ensure that an overall sound legal and public environment will be developed for blockchain technologies.
The biggest association is Chaintech (a wink to the 'Frenchtech' label created by the government) with more than 120 members, representing around 20 startups, including Blockchain Partner, Ledger, Stratumn, Ledgys, Woleet, Belem, Bity, etc.
Chaintech aims at "promoting visibility and synergy of French speaking blockchain actors, and give them a common institutional voice". It organizes and participates in meetings, conferences and hackathons (such as Le BlockFest 1.0, held in 2016 – a founding moment for Chaintech).
In addition, there are Le Cercle du Coin (a pioneer association in France, historically more focused on bitcoin) and Asseth (focused on ethereum). Less formal is the CryptoFR community, organized around a forum and a Slack group with more than 1500 people.
This landscape is boosted by numerous passionate and specialist individuals, mainly emanating from the bitcoin and ethereum communities.
How are schools and universities reacting?
ESILV, a French engineering school, was one of the first academic institutions in the world to show its interest in blockchain technology by certifying student diplomas on bitcoin at the beginning of 2016.
The school has also been integrating blockchain in its curriculum. As early as September 2015, students were already being offered a course on bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, in order to understand how blockchain technologies work under the hood.
Furthermore, the department of financial engineering launched, in September 2016, a fintech major which includes courses on cryptography, payment systems, blockchain and the history of currencies until bitcoin. ECE, another engineering school in Paris, is also quite active, thanks to its numerous alumni working in blockchain startups or projects.
However, these kinds of initiatives are still rare and France needs more universities to take on the subject.
Awareness is rising, though. In March 2017, ESCP Europe, a business school, held the first conference on French blockchain academic research in partnership with Blockchain Partner and the Ministry of Economy.
While there are still few big actors or large-scale public initiatives, the French blockchain community is very active, thanks to the associations that federate the ecosystem, and public authorities are slowly building awareness of the subject.
All the conditions are being met for France to become a major actor in the international blockchain scene, and the future looks very promising.
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