Can Startups Change The World? A French Alternative To Silicon Valley

They call themselves the “Barbarians,” ready to challenge both the status quo in France and the prevailing ethos of U.S. startups obsessed with power and money.

Three "Barbarians" in the middle of a creative thinking exercise
Three "Barbarians" in the middle of a creative thinking exercise
Sophie Fay

PARIS — It was a funny tribe that got together one late March afternoon at the “Archipel.” In the nave of this former convent in the French capital, more than 200 people who previously knew each other only through Facebook messages finally met up IRL, “in real life.”

They call themselves the “Barbarians,” an odd nickname that can make them sound aggressive, even violent. But no weapons or battle plans here beyond the ultra-fast Internet connection and a burning desire to take their destiny into their own hands rather than remaining passive in the face of the changes triggered by the digital revolution.

The room fills with the sound of simultaneous, enthusiastic conversations. Aymeric Poulain Maubant, has arrived from the western city of Brest, hoping to strengthen links with the Parisian Barbarians. Pierre Chevelle, whose passion is innovation around social welfare, is describing his guide to “Change the World in Two Hours” and plans to help 10,000 readers engage in a grassroots movement this year.

A group from Lyon propose a solution, swarming, to be able to truly share without enriching “the monopolies” (Airbnb, Uber …) of the so-called sharing economy. Yves Tuet, the head of Deolan, a start-up that employs 35 people, explains how he “liberated” his company from the hierarchy that was suffocating it. Meanwhile, Duc Ha Duong, founder of Officience, a computer services company that is training a dozen Vietnamese engineers, animates the event with his microphone as Audrey Lebeau reigns over the Disco Soup in a joyful mess.

At the start, the “100barbarians” group was created on Facebook in reaction to an influential ranking of the French Choiseul Institute published in early 2014, listing the 100 under-40 French people who will shape the world of tomorrow. The list was dominated by heirs, daughters and sons of industrial leaders, graduates of the prestigious National School of Administration, bankers… “Not us, not true,” decided a few friends active in France's digital world, founders of startups and associations, freelancers and even young executives of top companies.

Confronted every day with the arrival of new stakeholders that disrupt our habits and models, from Google to Apple, Amazon to Airbnb and Uber, Deezer or Spotify, they are convinced that those who will change France tomorrow won’t be the traditional elites, but the “Barbarians” who you won’t even see coming. To identify them, the Facebook group les100barbares was launched with a survey amongst friends. Each person could provide one name, everyone could vote. Today, the page now counts some 2,400 members.

Not the world they want

To be clear, the goal isn’t to create the French Google, the European Amazon, nor to become millionaires. Their manifesto says something else: “We’re at a breaking point during which the only winners today are those who anticipate the world of tomorrow, and use this acumen to impose their rules and privatize humanity for their exclusive profit. It’s not the world we want.”

People from very different backgrounds have gathered around this project. Who are they? What do they do? To discover it themselves, they pitched: In 30 seconds, on stage, more than 20 of them explained their plans to “change the world.” The keyword of these pitches is “job out”, or that moment when they quit their jobs to devote themselves entirely to a project that seemed to them to have more meaning, more efficiency and more utility than life working for a multinational. Because many Barbarians do indeed work, or used to work, for major companies while dreaming of something else.

Here is a small collection of the pitches and projects discovered that afternoon in the nave of the Archipel:

  • Emmanuelle and Fatiha’s connected hair clip

“One of the first barriers to the education of girls is safety on their way to and from school,” explain Emmanuelle Jardat and Fatiha Heim. They have an idea: the connected hair clip. Linked to a smartphone or another network, it will record the scene, triggered by a very simple movement, as soon as a woman or young girl feels threatened. If the attacker insists, an alert will be sent to the police. “Every country, every women’s rights NGO will be able to draw its own hair clip,” says one. They’re both engineers working at France Telecom, which has already agreed to distribute this new connected object.

It’s one of the most lively pitches of the evening. Mélanie Marcel gets straight to the point: She had worked at the research lab of a major group, and says her job was to “transform your brains into cellphones.” Until the day she asked herself: how far are we ready to go? What is science for? Where’s the promise for progress? This engineer-researcher, an expert in wave physics, specialized in neuroscience, worked for the lab of the Japanese telecommunications giant NTT Docomo, near Tokyo. Her research focused on the communication between neurons and machines.

“The basic research was captivating, but the final goal, the one I never signed up for, was to put our cellphones in our brains within 20 or 30 years,” she says. She preferred creating SoScience with Eloïse Szmatula, another researcher in neuroscience. With this startup, they want to make research and innovation more responsible. Their first approach: make science serve social entrepreneurs by helping them through technology to reach goals faster (for example, by developing the micro-encapsulation of essential oils to introduce them in household products and fight against malaria in Burkina Faso; using drones to clean up seabeds). Their second approach: raise awareness among big companies about these issues, as well as with engineer students and future researchers by giving courses and conferences.

  • Matthieu, the insider Barbarian

​Matthieu Varagnat left Saint-Gobain, where he was an “insider Barbarian”, in charge of open innovation and partnerships with startups. But his "baby" was born three months ago — a company he created with his childhood friend Fabien Akunda, with an evocative name: “the fine wine.” Tell them which meal you’re preparing, they will send you the wine of a small producer that they select with the greatest care. Tonight, with Vinify, another startup, he offers tastings. He calls to two rare Barbarians wearing suits (though their ties are in pocket): “Hey, you two, you need to talk to each other. I’ll introduce you: Corporate hacker BNP Paribas and corporate hacker Safran.” What’s a corporate hacker? An executive who tries to stir the traditional and hierarchical habits inside the major groups to open them to new forms of cooperation and innovation. These two suit-wearing "hackers" had plenty of stories to share.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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