From Memphis To Paris, Martin Luther King's Unfinished Boulevard

SNCF employees protest against Macron's reform plans.
SNCF employees protest against Macron's reform plans.
Imani Barbarin

PARIS — On any day of the week in Paris, my morning commute is interrupted by the word "Manifestation." These political demonstrations and labor union protests occur with such frequency that I often barely notice the subject matter of the protest, hoping only to get to my destination within that window of acceptable lateness.

As a black, disabled American, my entire public existence has been made possible because of the actions of the social justice and civil rights advocates who came before me. As we remember the life and solemnly mark the death of Martin Luther King Jr. on its 50th anniversary, we must resist the urge to sanitize or abbreviate his legacy. Honoring Dr. King from my current home in, France, reminds me that the entire Western world must still come to grips with ethnic violence and socioeconomic exclusion, and it is more important than ever we learn the lessons of a teacher who was gone before his time.

Martin Luther King during the Civil Right's March on Washington D.C. — Photo: Rowland Scherman

MLK's legacy is synonymous with racial advocacy, which was central to his guest sermon at the American Church in Paris in 1965, but his struggle was by no means limited to justice for African Americans. His work also focused on income inequalities and disparities in accessing the public sphere. Indeed it was a sanitation labor union strike, not too unlike the national transit strike gripping France now, that prompted his visit to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The death of two African-American workers had sparked a national conversation about working conditions for the poor, both black and white. It seems that now, more than any time since the Civil Rights era, members of the underrepresented are finding themselves in the streets more often for the sake of equality and their democratic freedoms.

At the time of his death, King and his team were in the midst of expanding the purview of his social justice efforts into a campaign called the "Poor People's Campaign." Having grown frustrated with the endless dragging of feet by the US government in addressing the needs of poor citizens, King was coordinating a new March on Washington of poor people to force politicians to confront their constituents.

So, as SNCF railway staff face off against French President Emmanuel Macron's" transportation reform plans that they believe will jeopardize their hard-earned employee rights, we must listen to their demands with the same attention as we did the sanitation workers in Memphis. Much has been said in light of current events about how Dr. King's work on racial equality was left unfinished. But his legacy of advocating for economic equality also leaves us with plenty of work to do.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

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 for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

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.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

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".

Finding culprits 

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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