COPENHAGEN - It's party time in Christiania, a neighborhood of the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Hundreds have gathered to listen to Sussie & Leo, a crazy duet that plays old rock and roll hits with a certain touch of self-mockery. "I'm an absolute fan," says Inge, a fifty-something-year-old woman with blue hair. "This group is part of our youth. And yes, they're playing for free, as friends. When I think that they signed a one-million-Danish-krone contract (130,000 euros) to sing for the bourgeois of Skagen, it makes me love them even more."
Despite Inge's sarcasm, Christiania has just become more like Skagen, an upscale seaside town 500km north of Copenhagen where the upper class gather. For the past several weeks, the world's most famous "free city" has been in turmoil. After 40 years of conflict and threats, resistance and talks, the Danish state has finally won the battle. Christianites were forced to pay up and buy most of the buildings that they had been occupying since the beginning of the "70s: a real revolution.
"No one will say it, but for us it is a huge defeat. Imagine: We've become owners overnight. We own houses!" says a young man who calls himself Asterix. He is actually wrong. Everyone in Christiania, at least those from 45 to 65-years-old, who are the majority, will actually admit to their failure. They might even use harsher words like "treason" or "capitulation."
Christiania was born in September 1971, on the beautiful grounds of an old military barracks, almost in the heart of Copenhagen. Hippies, the unemployed and squatters moved in pledging allegiance to a charter proclaiming the goal (at the time) of this "free" city: to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the well-being of the entire community.
For decades, Christianites stayed true to the ideals of the sixties. There are now almost a thousand people living here in self-sufficiency. Christiania has its own flag and money and even its own stamps. Residents pick up the trash (and they recycle, this is Scandinavia after all) with their own garbage trucks. They repair the city's sewage system and although there are no schools, they manage childcare centers. Cars aren't allowed except for emergencies, it's forbidden to run (a way to spot robbers) and the beer is brewed locally.
Ralf, a German man with long grey hair, was just passing through Copenhagen in the "70s. "I went to see this Christiania that everyone was raving about and I never left," he says. When he celebrated his 60th birthday a few days ago, everyone was talking about "it."
"The community turned to donations to pay the first million-euro slice to the state. But now we have to find a way to pay back the remaining millions that we owe to the bank."
The community makes decisions by consensus. It took three years of talks for the 17 neighborhoods of Christiania to take up Denmark's offer. But discussions continued: Will residents have to pay depending on the size of their home? Will they have to introduce the heretic idea of a monthly rent?
A younger, less idealistic generation
"Us oldies just gave in," says Ralf, sipping from his beer. The younger, less idealistic residents were convinced by the incredibly low prices offered compared to the housing market. They were the ones who tipped the balance. "We didn't really have a choice. Children and grand-children grow up, people divorce and live separately, we are facing a housing shortage." The deal with the Danish government allows Christiania residents to build new housing if they first pay for the renovation of the old military buildings, many of which are falling apart.
Pilot projects are in the works to try and deal with the commune's population. "One of the projects is to spread out older residents like me in buildings where younger neighbors can take care of us," says Ralf.
Christiania is one of Copenhagen's major tourist attractions and it's also very famous for its Pusher Street market, where residents openly sell marijuana. But behind this "tourist" attraction that largely "subsidizes" Christiania, there are 32 hectares of land and lakes with cute little wooden houses spread among the plants.
After 20 years away from Christiania, Beatrix, another 50-year-old, has come back to one of those houses. She left to raise her kids on a farm, away from the "temptations" of Christiania's streets. "I had to come back," she says. When asked what she does for a living she says: "In Christiania, you don't make a living. You just live."
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Photo: Kethevane Gorjestani
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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