Xavier Niel, le fondateur de Free, a accordé un long entretien au Financial Times, dans laquelle il revient sur son parcours. «La France ne m'a pas freiné, mais elle ne m'a pas aidé non plus», estime l'homme d'affaires, aujourd'hui à la tête d'une fortune valorisée autour de 6 milliards d'euros.
Les élites françaises, à ses yeux coupables de «copinage», concentrent une partie de ses critiques. «La plupart des hommes d'affaires français sont des héritiers, qui fréquentent les mêmes cercles, ou ont obtenu leurs postes directement ou indirectement grâce au pouvoir politique. Ils ne créent généralement pas de grandes choses. Regardez le CAC 40 : il ne comporte qu'une seule entreprise vieille de moins de 30 ans - Gemalto, qui fabrique des cartes intelligentes. Peu de pays sont dans cette situation», déplore le self-made man.
Egalement actionnaire du journal Le Monde, il n'épargne pas non plus le pouvoir politique : «La France n'est pas le pays le mieux dirigé. [...] La France fait des gaffes énormes, comme cette taxe à 75% qui ne touche personne mais fait parler tout le monde». Il ne sera lui-même pas touché par cette mesure symbolique annoncée par François Hollande durant la campagne présidentielle car il ne touche selon ses dires, «pas un gros salaire», quand la taxe s'impose aux revenus supérieurs au million d'euros.
Dailymotion intéresse Xavier Niel
Xavier Niel entend apporter lui-même sa pierre à l'édifice. Outre la commercialisation de son offre mobile, qui a selon lui «redonné 2 milliards d'euros de pouvoir d'achat aux Français», il a récemment investi 70 millions d'euros pour créer une école de programmation informatique baptisée 42. «Je pense que 10% des élèves crééront leur entreprise, c'est formidable. 1% seulement réussira, mais ce n'est pas grave». Il affirme soutenir les jeunes pousses en soutenant financièrement deux starts-up chaque semaine. Et conteste les critiques de ses concurrents, qui lui imputent la suppression de milliers de postes.
Selon le site Wansquare, Xavier Niel se serait par ailleurs montré intéressé par le rachat des parts de France Télécom dans Dailymotion. Le ministre du Redressement productif, Arnaud Montebourg, s'était auparavant opposé au rachat du spécialiste de la vidéo sur internet par l'américain Yahoo!. Ce dernier ayant jeté l'éponge, Dailymotion est toujours à la recherche d'un partenaire qui lui permettra de se développer à l'étranger, notamment aux Etats-Unis et en Asie.
Xavier Niel: «La France n'est pas le pays le mieux dirigé»
Source: Le Figaro.fr
He sits down, looks me in the eye, and beams as if genuinely elated to meet me. I ask how he chose the restaurant. “It’s 50 metres from my office, so from laziness,” he says with a chuckle. “You used to have to wear a suit here, now you don’t, so that’s better.” He orders a Diet Coke. I’ve started with water but am hoping to turn this into a boozy and revealing meal. Niel had initially refused my invitation to lunch, pleading poor English, but relented when he heard we’d be speaking French. “I have a very, very, very, very bad accent,” he laughs, breaking briefly into English.
A waiter arrives with a complimentary dish, some sort of sweet potato with courgettes but Niel barely notices the food and keeps talking in his top-speed French. “France didn’t obstruct me but it didn’t help me either,” is how he describes his rise. Now 45, he grew up in Créteil, just east of Paris. His mother was an accountant, while his father spent 15 years studying everything from law to medicine. When Niel was 14, his Dad gave him a toy that changed his life: a ZX81, the British computer developed by Clive Sinclair. “Mr Sinclair! Sir Sinclair!” exults Niel. “It was something magical: something that did whatever I wanted. And I think there was my Dad’s love of computing and electronics. Perhaps Freud could say something about that.”
Crucially, Niel, who turned out to be a gifted computer programmer, was lucky enough to live in the one country that in the 1980s had developed a proto-internet: Minitel, invented by French engineers. The Minitel terminal, attached to a telephone line, allowed users to do simple things such as send each other messages.
“That’s how I started,” says Niel. “First I made software for all the big French groups that used Minitel. Then one day I did it for myself.” In his teens, he headed for where the money was: sex chat sites, known as “Minitel rose”, or pink Minitel. On leaving school, he also bought into brick-and-mortar sex shops. Niel emphasises his programming origins, something he shares with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. “They also made their own product. They didn’t hire someone to do it, they weren’t just marketing men. Listen,” he adds, “I think I’m much less brilliant than they are: I’m a little French entrepreneur. I once said, ‘Steve Jobs is the American Xavier Niel,’ but that was humour.”
Waiters are hovering. What does Niel like to eat? “Everything, I like everything!” I suggest the elaborate tasting menu. “I think we’d only get out of here at 5pm,” says Niel. “And it’s heavy. Do you want to make me fat?” Instead, we both decide to start with a wild mushroom fricassée, after which Niel goes for the roast sea bass (“super”) and I for vanilla-flavoured open ravioli with lobster. “A little wine?” asks the waiter, but Niel says: “I don’t drink alcohol.” So I limit myself to a glass of white Languedoc.
. . .
Some in France thought Minitel was the future; Niel was shrewder. In 1993, he founded WorldNet, France’s first internet service provider. Nine years later, his company Iliad launched the “Freebox”, an ingenious set-top box that brought internet, TV and telephone into your home. A monthly package cost just €29.99, undercutting competitors. There was a hiccup in 2004 when Niel was briefly jailed after a four-year judicial investigation into one of his businesses; he received a two-year suspended sentence and a €250,000 fine for embezzling about €200,000 from some sex shops he co-owned. (“I did stupid things, I paid for them,” he has said.)
Mostly, though, the ascent has been dizzying. Last year Free, a subsidiary of Iliad, became France’s fourth mobile operator. Niel staged an Apple-like press conference, called rival operators a “racket” and promised to “cut prices in half”. Free’s basic mobile package currently costs only €19.99 a month. Martin Bouygues, the billionaire who runs Free’s rival and France’s third largest mobile network Bouygues Telecom, sniffed, “I have no intention of letting the gypsies on to my chateau’s lawns”, whereupon Niel, a Jobsian master of marketing, sent a publicity truck to Bouygues headquarters plastered with the words, “We are not gypsies.”
Free’s competitors have grumbled that Niel, by undercutting their margins, forced them to cut jobs. Niel dismisses the complaint: “If a bakery opens in a street in London, will the baker opposite tell the newspapers to say, ‘Oh là là, I’ve had to sack workers’?” Chewing his fricassée, he adds: “My greatest point of pride is that last year we gave the French €2bn in purchasing power. Each French person, I gave €40 through my work.”
Iliad’s market capitalisation has risen more than tenfold since 2004 to €10bn. (Niel owns about 60 per cent of the company.) If his methods work in France, why not go global? Niel explains: “Telecoms is a national business. There isn’t a European market. There’s no Telecom Italia in France. Look at our difficulties getting a mobile phone licence in France. If we hadn’t been French, it would have been impossible.”
And so Niel plays on the French elite’s terrain. How does he find the elite? Niel tries to describe their mindset: “You went to the same school. Your parents knew each other. On all these paths, you’ve been among yourselves. And among yourselves, nobody wants to upset anyone. If you get on well together, you’re not going to break the price of mobile phones. Why lower your margins? You’re not going to quarrel among yourselves.”
He diagnoses elite “cronyism”. Most French business leaders, he says, “are heirs, who frequent the same circles, or were given their posts directly or indirectly by the political powers. Then there’s a very egotistical remuneration. And they generally don’t create great things. Look at the French stock market: in the CAC 40 [France’s 40 largest listed companies], you have only one company – Gemalto, which makes smart cards – that’s under 30 years old. In very few countries would you find this.”
The French elite took a blow last month when it emerged that budget minister Jerôme Cahuzac had a secret Swiss bank account. “They think that if you make the rules, you’re not subject to them,” Niel says of the affair.
Surely Niel himself by now, like Jobs or Zuckerberg, has joined the establishment? He denies the charge: “I don’t belong to any circle. My friends are ‘normal’ people, in quotes – people I like going underground in Paris with, doing speleology.” I must look surprised, because he says: “For you, owning stock in Le Monde is incompatible with going into catacombs with my mates?”
Recently, Niel has graduated from irritating the French elite to irritating the global elite. For several days in January, Free changed its default settings to block online ads. The move was aimed chiefly at YouTube, which Niel says refuses to pay for the online traffic it generates. Fleur Pellerin, French minister for the digital economy, ordered Free to remove the block. When I mention this, Niel retorts: “You think we went to sleep when the minister told us to stop?” What will he do then? “We’ll continue. We’ll cut the ads from time to time, and one day we’ll cut them for good.”
. . .
By now we’re eating our main courses (excellent, incidentally) but, in a distinctly un-French way, Niel seems unaware of his food. He’s saying that the French don’t dislike businesspeople, they just dislike heirs. He himself, he claims, is quite popular. “I’ve never suffered aggression, neither on the street nor in the newspaper. And I read the most communist newspapers in the country.” So he goes around without bodyguards? He smiles at the thought. “I got here fine,” he says, and teases me: “Do you think it’s dangerous? Do you have a bodyguard?”
Three years ago, Niel, together with the industrialist Pierre Bergé and banker Matthieu Pigasse, bought the ultimate elite newspaper: Le Monde. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then president, fought their bid. In private meetings, Sarkozy apparently referred to Niel as “the peep-show man”.
Niel finds the president’s machinations very funny. “Sarkozy was backing – what’s his name, the owner of Le Nouvel Observateur, a leftwing magazine? Sarkozy, a rightwinger, backed Claude Perdriel – that’s his name! – an intimate of his. We won because Sarkozy was against us!” laughs Niel. Le Monde journalists, suspicious of the president’s candidate, voted overwhelmingly for the Niel bid.
Niel now surely influences Le Monde? “We saved Le Monde! I adore this phrase.” He repeats it in English: “We saved ze World! We’ve never intervened there. I’ve only been into the Monde office once, when the editor Erik Izraelewicz died.” The word from inside Le Monde is that Niel doesn’t intervene with content but that his cost-cutting management upsets journalists. Tellingly, his emissary inside the paper in 2010, Michaël Boukobza, was known to staff as “Bazooka”.
Niel is almost as much a French Citizen Kane as a Steve Jobs. He also backs the investigative website Mediapart, which exposed Cahuzac. Why fund media? “I like having a free press.” I start to say, “A businessman who buys France’s most powerful paper because he believes in ...” but Niel interrupts: “I finance newspapers of the right and the left.”
He also invests in two new start-ups a week, he says. “It’s more profitable than playing the lottery, and much more fun.” Anyway, he explains, he wants to give money away. “I wasn’t born with much and the day I die, money won’t be much use to me. Why leave my children such responsibility? Why take from them all desire to have a life? They have enough for what they want. The rest I’d like to redistribute.” Incidentally, he notes: “I don’t think Steve Jobs had much desire to share his fortune.”
. . .
Lunch with the FT: Xavier Niel
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist