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Switzerland

Cyrano Dot Com? A French Service Offering Online Seduction

Top executives and even ordinary folks use the skills of the French company Net Dating Assistant to pose for them online and woo would-be lovers.

At an exhibit preview in Toulouse, in February 2012.
At an exhibit preview in Toulouse, in February 2012.
Alan Monnat

TOULOUSE — Matthieu Banas, co-founder of Net Dating Assistant, recalls the words of one of his businessman customers. "I delegate the recruitment of my interns for my company, so why should I be any different when searching for a partner?"

Based in southern French city of Toulouse, Net Dating Assistant offers a rather unusual service: finding (and keeping) its clients' soulmates on dating websites. From creating profiles, searching and even chatting in their clients' name. These "dating assistants" take care of everything, up until the first date, about which they will, of course, brief their would-be Romeos. Potential partners, they insist, never suspect a thing.

Ane who exactly are these clients? Mostly executives and managers and others who can afford the young company's rates — a 145-euro ($193) base fee, plus 16 euros ($21) per hour of follow-up seduction — and don't want to devote their precious spare time to skimming dating websites. But often, "Time is an excuse to conceal a lack of self-confidence or of knowledge of new media," says Julien, one of the 12 "dating assistants," who quickly acknowledges having met his own wife online.

This way of finding a mate is not to everyone's liking. "The conversations are intimate," one dating site user explains. "You can be seduced by a turn of phrase or a bit of humor when, actually, it’s all fake."

Of this personalized "service," an indignant Valentine Schnebelen, marketing director of the well-established dating website Meetic, says "It’s horrible!" But she acknowledges that there's no way of fighting these — what are they exactly? — usurpers.

"There is no identity theft, but simply the sharing of a username and password," Net Dating Assistant's Matthieu Banas says, countering the criticism.

Keeping it real-ish

The dating website giant Meetic actively dissuades such services. "We advise our 840,000 subscribers to remain true to themselves," Schnebelen says. "That's how it works."

That's not how Banas sees things. "A good profile is like a good CV," he says. "The recruiter reading it must be seduced and fear seeing such a rare pearl slip through his fingers."

Jacques, a 28-year-old disabled man, doesn't disagree. Thanks to his new profile created by Fanny, a young mother who e-seduces people to help pay for her studies, his rate of interactions has doubled.

To have an effective profile, Fanny carefully chooses the photos — "if possible, photos where the person is in action, at a concert, on a golf course," she says — by making sure that they represent her client well. Then she carefully writes effective, almost literary, messages on her clients' behalf.

Behold this little nugget: "I picture you in the morning, with tousled hair. You are so pretty. I get up without a sound." She has a talent for finding the right first words or to solicit a response when an initial missive goes ignored. Fanny tries her luck again with reluctant people by asking them if they prefer pancakes or waffles, or she asks other innocent questions "always in a light tone, and in perfect French."

Her skills don't go unnoticed in the eyes of Marc, a client who, like others, asked to protect his real identity for this article. Thrilled by one of the catch phrases written in his name, Marc copied it and sent it to a dozen other women on the same site who, unfortunately for him, talk among themselves. Furious, the first woman to whom he wrote soon wrote back to insult him. Marc answered — or rather Fanny did for him. "I didn't know how to calm her," Fanny says. "My boyfriend eventually helped me reverse the situation. He's a smooth talker."

Playing an alter ego is no easy task. It's important to know the customer and the town in which he lives, as well as be aware of the weather and the activities going on in the area. It's real research that needs to be done regularly for every customer. "When you have four or more customers, it becomes almost schizophrenic," Julien says.

Like Fanny, he says his satisfaction comes in "helping others." But still, don’t these digital Cupids feel there is a tragic divide between their humanist ideals and the fact that they lie by omission? "Everyone knows the Internet involves monumental trickery," Julien says, defending his work. "What counts is really meeting the person. It's love, whatever the means."

He and his colleagues say they have enabled more than 1,000 in-person dates, including a few in French-speaking Switzerland, where the service currently has only six customers, all men, such as Hervé.

From Geneva, this thirty-something works in finance and has recently started dating someone. But he won't admit to his girlfriend that it was with Julien that she shared the first communications of their romance. "Never. I'm the one who seduced her," he says. "I struggled for a month in the real world."

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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