French Yellow Vests: How Social Unrest Begets Anti-Semitism

Yellow Vests protest in Manosque on Feb. 2
Yellow Vests protest in Manosque on Feb. 2
Alain Chouraqui

PARIS — European history has shown, time and again, that anti-Semitism is an indicator that the social state has become unstable. It's therefore not shocking that it's developing today in France, linked in particular to fringes of the anti-establishment yellow vest movement. The paths laid between a society in crisis and anti-Semitism have been laid in the collective subconscious. Jews are often perceived as belonging to the elite, notably the intellectual and financial elite; and thus when a movement attacks the elite, it quickly moves to attacking Jews.

An additional noteworthy factor: There are very real extremist infiltrations into the Yellow Vests ("Gilets Jaunes') movement. And these extremists, despite their ideological differences, have two points in common that have come up throughout history: the rejection of "the system"— whatever that's supposed to mean — and that of the Jews. Hence improbable alliances between socialists and nationalists of which Nazism was the worst example.

Our societies have been facing growing instability for decades. There is an unprecedented level of interaction between people, cultures and businesses that creates a constant acceleration of change, of which globalization is but one aspect. The Yellow Vests movement is an expression of the anxiety created by this increasingly complex reality.

We are living in a dangerous time.

In response to this, certain people are looking for that which is simple — or, simplistic — and stable. This is an open door for nationalist or religious authoritarianism in which the demagogue reassures individuals with supposedly collective certainties. Until now, this call for strong power and at the exclusion of "others' has only appeared under immediate crises, like that of 1929. But when instability pulls at the nerves of a society in the long term, the ability to develop one's own benchmarks is the only alternative.

In the 20th century, this drove ordinary societies to genocide in a process and chain of events fed by extremism — in particular, extremism that's centered on identity and that winds up in search of scapegoats. This kind of chain of events can lead to a toppling of institutions, which does not necessarily mean a change of regime. This can occur with the gradual tightening of laws, public discourse from the leadership or the opposition around themes focusing on security over liberty, identity over politics or social concerns. Right now, we are in a volatile climate, where each action, each actor, each institution can be the difference between fostering or threatening civil peace.

Paris protests on Jan. 26 — Photo: Bruno Thevenin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

There is no use in preserving the memory of tragic experience if we forget that an authoritarian regime can be established anew in France. Fortunately, history also shows us that the process can be resisted, provided we resist it. But I'm very worried, even if the French people still seem rather level-headed.

We are living in a dangerous time, but it can also be a chance to allow us to progress on questions of equality and to improve our democracy — a bit like after the May 1968 movement that sparked many important questions about our relationship to consumption, the direction of progress, the relationship between men and women.

It can be resisted, provided we resist it.

We must quickly and strongly react to social unrest, notably on the questions of the distribution of wealth and the evolution of forms of democratic consultation and decision-making. Political power is just one actor of change and we should probably try to make our peace with its imperfect results, divided between quick decisions and processes that necessarily take more time. And of course, if we aim to involve citizens at all stages, we will need to wisely use new technologies.

One part of the immediate future will involve the relationship between reason and passion. The platform for dialogue exists, as social justice, equality, and dignity are values we share. But democratic dialogue cannot function without a basic level of reason. Democracy can die when that is replaced by an eruption of violence, no matter the origin, based on fear and hatred.

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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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