NEW YORK, Feb. 22 - Wine? Yes. Cuisine? For sure. Biotechnology? Mais non.
France's government is trying to boost the country's biotech position out of third-place. Lavishing the industry with new funding and relaxed regulations, government ministers are plotting to transform France from the laggard of Europe to the head of the pack. Their goal: to catch up with Germany in two years.
Last week, French President Jacques Chirac commended the power of biotech research at the plenary session of the French National Confederation of Health Professionals conference, held in Paris.
"Biotechnology companies will play a major role in improving the health of the French people, and in economic growth," said Chirac. He said that France must "make up for our slow start in biotechnology, the key to the medicines of the future," and recommended new free-enterprise zones for the industry that would minimize labor and tax regulations.
Chirac's words were welcomed by the primary French biotech industry association, France Biotech. Its president, Phillipe Pouletty, said in a statement that the group was "delighted" by Chirac's remarks.
Chirac's administration assures skeptics that the President's words are more than mere promises. Last fall, the French economic minister, Laurent Fabius, launched a plan to boost biotech investment in the country. This "plan Biotech" will prime the industry with €150 million, or roughly $131 million--and aims to catapult France into the leading role in European biotech by 2006.
The project, passed as part of a finance law, draws upon elements from a plan crafted by France Biotech and the biotech entrepreneur group Objectif 2010. The €150 million will be divided between €90 million in bank loan guarantees, which French officials anticipate will be translated into roughly €450 million in loans, and a new €60 million venture fund. The plan's backers estimate that these initiatives will attract several billion euros in investment to French biotech by 2006.
These are the first initiatives crafted expressly for the biotech industry by the finance ministry.
Industry boosters like Pouletty praised the new plan, which adopted many of France Biotech's recommendations. But, they caution, France's biotech business is still far behind its European and US competitors.
While Germany employs more than 11,000 people in roughly 400 biotech businesses, France's biotech sector includes only about 150 companies and 5,000 workers. The industry actually needs something closer to €1 billion or €1.5 billion each year for the next few years in order to get up to speed, they say.
France Biotech is also recommending a slate of regulatory reforms that would exempt innovative companies from capital gains taxes, labor charges and other corporate tax.
Without further efforts to simplify administrative rules and stimulate new investments, Industrial Secretary Christian Pierret told the influential daily Le Monde last fall, France's pharmaceutical industry could be facing a rough future.
Pierret, who crafted the new biotech initiative, said that if France does nothing to support its industry in the next two years, it will have definitively lost the race.
As the second biggest pharmaceutical market and the lead drug producer in Europe, "we cannot let that happen," he added. "That would be the death, here, of life sciences."