LES ECHOS
France's top business daily, Les Echos covers domestic and international economic, financial and markets news. Founded in 1908, the newspaper has been the property of French luxury good conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) since 2007.
Geopolitics
Lucie Robequain

Australia’s Submarine Slap To France Exposes Brutal Truth About Europe

The military pact between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom is further proof that Europe's influence is eroding. To make up for the absence of a collective defense from the bloc's 27, it is urgent to establish alliances with different countries.

The slap that Australia, along with the United States and the United Kingdom, has just inflicted on us is a reminder of some disturbing truths — which happen to be opposed to the values we cherish. First of all, it reminds us that in international relations, friends don't exist. There are just allies who share common interests. Europeans have long lived with the illusion that the United States, a brotherly country, would only want the best for us and that Joe Biden had a special bond with the land of his ancestors.

The fact that President Biden convinced Canberra to break its commitments with France's Naval Group shows his determination to follow only one course: that of Washington's economic and commercial interests. From this point of view, Biden's actions are much more damaging than Donald Trump's, because they are more thoughtful and effective. This is actually the second time since the beginning of the summer that the French defense has been snubbed: last June, Americans had managed to impose their fighter planes on Switzerland, to the detriment of France's Rafale.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden and Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a G7 meeting in Cornwall on June 12 — Photo: Andrew Parsons/Avalon/ZUMAAvalon/ZUMA

The Australian fiasco teaches us something else: our allies are less scrupulous than us in transferring their technologies. France has always refrained from exporting its nuclear-powered ships, because it sees them as the key to its independence and expertise. By agreeing to share theirs with the Australians, the Americans are breaking a major taboo.

History provides only one precedent, when Washington had offered its atomic expertise to the British. It was 1958, at the height of the Cold War — which says a lot about the anti-China front that is building up today. Will the American-Australian cooperation encourage other countries to develop their nuclear, civilian or military arsenals? Many fear so.

What's most cruel about this whole affair is to realize how much Europe's influence is eroding. Our hesitation vis-à-vis China is pushing the United States to forge alliances elsewhere, and without us. At the same time, they give Boris Johnson a great opportunity to achieve his ambitions to create a "Global Britain."

By contrast, Europe doesn't give any real weight to the common defense it calls for. The resistance of many countries, especially Poland, should push us to establish mini-alliances, as the United States is doing right now. We can only hope that the German election next week will choose a more proactive chancellor than Angela Merkel to actively support this strategic autonomy.

Future
Paul Molga

Pokemon, Magic As NFTs: How Tech Fuels Trading Cards Market

The heroic fantasy universes of the 1990s have become a new focus of investment. One card in the mega-popular Magic series recenty sold for more than $500,000, and with the introduction of blockchain technology, the market looks to expand even more.

Playing cards illustrated by the greatest science fiction and "heroic fantasy" artists of the moment, the blockchain to make them unique digital works, and a series of novels to accompany the story… Welcome to the fairytale universe of Cross the Ages.

Conceived by the young Marseille-based startupper Sami Chlagou, who is already behind a video game distribution and production company, this project aims to turn a generation's passion for trading cards and role-playing games into a business as disruptive and speculative as the cryptocurrency market.

The 30-year-old is no novice. Since the age of nine he's been collecting Magic: The Gathering cards, one of those games — like Pokemon, Dungeons and Dragons, or Warhammer — that brings together millions of fans around the world.

This game, imagined by the mathematician Richard Garfield in 1993, has become a worldwide succes because of the number of its protagonists (more than 20,000!) who cast and counteract many spells in a moving space-time as well as the immense complexity of its rules that evolve over the course of the game.

Researchers from the University of Georgia and University of Pennsylvania recently compared it to Go and Chess, which, unlike Magic, have defined limits such as board size. To do this, the two study authors coded the powers and properties of each card and had a computer analyse a two-person game.

For some of the 20 million fans worldwide, building a winning hand is a never-ending quest.

In the case of chess, determining a winning strategy is calculable. "But with Magic it's impossible because of the enormous number of assumptions," mathematician Stella Biderman, who organised the experiment, explained. "This game has the highest known computer complexity quotient."

To play, you need to build up a collection of at least 60 cards, which you can buy in stores where they are sold in packs of 15. In each pack, eleven cards are common, three are less common and one, a rarer version, gives superior powers. For the fans, of which there are more than 20 million worldwide, building a winning hand is a never-ending quest.

"You have to make each card work in symbiosis with the others and give some cards decisive advantages," says one player.

The oldest cards are the most sought after. Wizard of the Coast, the publisher of Magic (acquired by Hasbro in 1997), has reserved 572 of them that will never be reprinted. The only way to get them, therefore, is in the second-hand market, and the prices are skyrocketing.

In late January, a very rare, and mint condition (with a PSA rating of 10) copy of the game's Alpha Series Black Lotus card, of which there are reportedly only seven copies in the world, was auctioned off on eBay for $511,000. "That's how high the rarest of the rare can go," another player enthused.

Three cards in particular are awaiting their listing: Proposal, Splendid Genesis and Fraternal Exaltation, each produced only once to mark three key movements in Richard Garfield's life, namely his proposal and the birth of his two daughters.

The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, of which fewer than 200 copies were issued in 1909, rocked the market when it sold for a record $3.751 million on May 23. "The same madness is lurking for the Magic cards," says one investor.

It was an American collector, Jonathan Medina, who launched their speculative movement in April 2010, recounting in lengthy posts his search for the "pack to power" to achieve the ideal hand he was striving for. By trading sets of cards around the world 98 times, he writes that he managed to collect several of the out-of-print editions he was striving for, including a Mix Pearl, one of the nine extremely rare cards printed in late 1993.

Magic: The Gathering has more than 20,000 participants — Photo: Wizards_magicizards_magic

Since then, exchanges have become professionalized around marketplace like MTGStocks, Cardmarket or TCGPlayer. No authority regulates the translations, leaving it to the law of supply and demand fuelled by nostalgia.

"Like me, the first players are now in their 40s and earn enough to afford the cards they dreamed of as teenagers," says our investor, who pours a good part of his savings into these risky transactions.

The eBay platform, where much of the trading card business is done, has seen a 142% growth in transactions in 2020 with 4 million more cards sold. Pokémon topped the list with a record 574% increase in trading in one year, followed by basketball and baseball sports cards. Magic: The Gathering is in fourth place.

"New collectors are entering the card space as another investment avenue to diversify their investment portfolio. We expect this trajectory to follow suit in 2021," says Nicole Colombo, general manager of collectibles and trading cards at eBay.

With the blockchain, this industry could witness another new speculative momentum

Sami Chlagou, the entrepreneur from Marseille, has made all of this a cornerstone of his business. His company, Cartapapa, negotiates Magic over the counter and recorded transactions worth about 12 million euros last year, usually during international competitions that attract thousands of players each time.

"They mostly speak English, but also Phyrexian, the imaginary language spoken by one of the people in the series," says one fan, laughing, at a trading stand. "It keeps the legend alive and it's addictive."

With the blockchain, this industry could witness another new speculative momentum. The technology now makes it possible to attribute an unfalsifiable serial number, called a non-fungible token (NFT), to a digital object. Even virtually, a work can thus be authenticated as unique, like a certificate guaranteeing the signature of a great master, with the value exploding.

In March, several art proposals tagged this way found buyers among wealthy amateurs. The first tweet posted by the creator of the social network, Jack Dorsey, sold for $2.5 million. The digital artwork Everydays: The First 5,000 Days signed by the Belgian crypto-artist Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) was sold by the Christies auction house for more than $69 million.

"We are witnessing the beginning of a new chapter in the history of digital art," the auctioneer explained in a statement released the day after the sale. "Artists have been using data storage and software to create works and distribute them on the Internet for over 20 years, but until now there was no real way to own and collect them. With the NFT, that has all changed."

Trading cards are expected to be part of this phenomenon too. French startup Sorare is one of the first to enter this segment by allowing soccer fans to buy and sell NFT digital cards of their favourite players, and compete in a global championship.

Launched in March 2019, the game now claims more than 50,000 users and reached a 70-fold increase in the volume of cards traded in one year. At the end of February, it raised 40 million euros (from the American fund Benchmark in particular) to develop its global community.

The maps in Cross The Ages will also be digital and will have an NFT serial number, making each one unique. The universe in which the players will evolve — an imaginary continent where two civilisations of wizard lords and humanoid robots are pitted against each other — already involves more than 200 writers, scriptwriters and other blockchain experts.

The investment amounts to nearly 1 million euros and, by backing his game with a new cryptocurrency (Edra), the Marseille-based entrepreneur hopes to raise 12 million euros to finance its development.

The first book in the saga will be released in September and will be followed by seven others, published on a fixed date each year, with a code to obtain a free card drawn at random from the 360 that will be published each season.

"All of them are numbered works of art, made by artists who have worked on the biggest hits of recent years such as Avatar, Star Wars and Game of Thrones," Sami Chlagou explains.

On Instagram, where the entrepreneur is gradually lifting the veil on the game, 60,00 curious souls have already spread the word.

Society
Julie Zaugg

Chinese Fashion: The Chic Side Of Made In China

Chinese cosmetic and apparel companies that once operated in obscurity are now making a real name for themselves, at least among domestic consumers, who see brands like Li-Ning and Bosideng as providing both quality and style.

BEIJING — It's September 2018, and New York Fashion Week is in full swing. Among the shows put on by prominent fashion houses, "Chinese Day," organized by the e-commerce platform Tmall, makes a particularly big impact. And what really has people talking is the bold collection launched that day by Li-Ning, an unknown Chinese sportswear brand.

The company, founded by Olympic gold-medal gymnast Li-Ning, actually dates back to 1990. And yet, for most of its history, the brand limited itself to unimaginative lines of sneakers and sportswear.

"It used to be that people would buy Li-Ning when they could not afford Nike or Adidas,'' Dao Nguyen, founder of the Essenzia consulting firm, recalls.

All of that changed after New York Fashion Week.

Li-Ning isn't the only Chinese brand to shift course in that way. Several other companies are also revolutionizing the universe of fashion and beauty right now in the so-called Middle Kingdom.

Once synonymous with cheap, poor quality, Made in China has undergone a striking transformation in the past last years, moving upmarket and gaining popularity among the 1.4 billion people inhabiting this huge country.

''This phenomenon began a dozen years ago, with the arrival of Chinese creators such as Masha ma, Huishan Zhang or Angel Chen, graduates of the top fashion schools in Paris, London and New York,'' explains Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, a Chinese fashion specialist.

After working with Western designers, they went back home to built their own labels. It took a while for the shift to really take root. Chinese brands did not reach the mass market until 2018. But what they did have was geographic proximity to the production chains that turned China into the world's factory.

''They were able to absorb the expertise and workforce gravitating around the manufacturing sector which developed in the delta of the Pearls river, in the south of the country,'' says Rui Ma, an expert on Chinese start-ups.

Some of these brands initially produced goods for Western clients before launching their own line. An example is Bosideng, which was founded on the mid 1970s and produced parkas for Adidas and The North Face. But starting about 10 years ago, the company began promoting its own luxury parkas.

''These suppliers learned by observing what their clients and other regional factories were doing and drew their inspiration from them to create their own collections,'' explains Mark Tanner, founder of the consulting agency China Skinny.

'Dual circulation' is one of Xi's favorite expressions.

The improvement in quality of Chinese brands fits in with the government's goal of wanting to promote domestic consumption in parallel to exports. The strategy is called ''dual circulation,'' and it has become one of President Xi Jinping's favorite expressions.

The tariffs war between Beijing and Washington has accelerated the process, encouraging China to move away from its dependency on Western goods.

Leading the charge are brands like Peacebird, Urban Revivo and Ochirly, which are frequently described as China's Zara or H&M. In fact, it was precisely after visiting a Zara store in Japan that Urban Revivo's founder, Li Mingguang, chose to replicate the Spanish chain in China, starting in the provinces in the middle of the country and in mid-sized cities along the coast line, where the company wouldn't have to face international competition.

Today, the brand owns 200 stores, and its sales have gone up an average of 50% every year since the company was founded in 2006.

One of the strengths of these companies is that they know to adapt to local tastes. As Babette Radclyffe-Thomas explains: "A Chinese cosmetics brand won't try to market a lipstick with purplish or blueish hues, because it wouldn't go well on an Asian skin."

Perfect Diary is a case in point. Created in 2016 by former staff of Procter & Gamble, the cosmetics group based their esthetic on the androgynous codes taking place in the world of video games and mangas, which are extremely popular among Chinese youth.

A visitor tries beauty products at the second China International Import Exposition in Shanghai — Photo: Zhangchuanqi/Xinhua/ZUMA

''Young people born in the 1980s and 1990s are proud of their Chinese legacy,'' says Rui Ma. "They do not hesitate anymore to display their patriotism and this frequently translates into buying goods produced locally.''

A study done by the Nielsen institute in 2019 shows that 68% of Chinese consumers prefer local brands to foreign ones. That's a complete shift compared to their parents' generation.

Pride and nostalgia

Blunders by some foreign fashion houses have also fed this nationalism and sparked a defensive feeling of pride towards local brands. ''Dolce & Gabbana lost all credibility in China following an advertising campaign showing a Chinese model eating a pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks,'' Dao Nguyen explains.

Blunders by some foreign fashion houses have sparked a defensive feeling of pride towards local brands.

In 2018, Gap found itself in hot water for a shirt that featured a map of China but that didn't include Taiwan and a part of Tibet. More recently, H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry and Converse all faced boycotts in China after announcing they would stop using cotton produced in Xinjiang because of questions over forced labor risks. That, in turn, benefitted Chinese companies like Li-Ning and Anta Sports, whose shares exploded.

Typically, the trend in China is to look forward. There's a preference for modernity. Lately, though, young people have been embracing a retro, nostalgic kind of style, as epitomized by Li-Ning's 80s-looking sneakers. Other examples include the throw-back aluminium boxes that some candy companies have reintroduced.

Still, not every company has had success going retro. The French brand Balenciaga — in an obvious reference to the kitchy backdrops long used by Chinese photo studios — launched an ad campaign showing models posing in front of waterfalls and cherry-blossom trees. But consumers ended up feeling put off by the imagery.

Real-time innovation

Whereas some brands are looking to the past for inspiration, others are embracing the future, particularly in terms of new communications technology. Perfect Diary, for example, relies on a community strategy that involves attracting consumers through private discussion groups on WeChat messaging.

"They're hosted by an avatar called Xiao Wanzi, who exchanges makeup tips with the brand's fans, answers their questions and introduces them to exclusive products," Radclyffe-Thomas explains.

The strategy allows the company to collect precious data on customer preferences and buying habits. This is coupled with a sophisticated, real-time analysis of the products performing the best online.

"These brands make extensive use of the data available to them," says Tanner. "They are constantly expanding their assortment based on current trends, testing and then removing from sale the goods that have not been successful."

Some brands introduce more than 10,000 new products each month.

Despite their domestic success, Chinese fashion and beauty companies still struggle to make their mark abroad. A good example is Bosideng, which opened a store in London and another in New York. But have now closed.

"The luxury-down jacket market was saturated and they were unable to compete with more established brands such as Moncler," says Radclyffe-Thomas.

Geopolitics
Dominique Moisi

9/11, Bin Laden's Unlikely Gift To China And Russia

The September 11 attacks both mobilized America and showed its fragility. Twenty years later, the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East. The greatest beneficiary is not the Muslim world, as Bin Laden dreamed, but two powers reborn in the East.

-Analysis-

PARIS — "Men make their own history, but they do not make the history they please." Twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, could Karl Marx's old formula help us understand the upheavals that have occurred in the world during the last two decades?

With the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul, it would be tempting to consider that nothing has happened during these past 20 years beyond the noise, the fury and the unnecessary suffering. Has the world — at least in Kabul — not returned to the way it was in 2001?

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Behind the deceptive appearance of continuity, the world has changed profoundly. But not necessarily in the direction desired by its main protagonists in 2001. Recently declassified manuscripts in Bin Laden's writing — found in his Pakistani hideout in 2011 — shed light on his intentions.

The man behind the 9/11 attacks did not just want to hurt and humiliate America, and rally Muslims behind the creation of a new caliphate. He was convinced that once they were wounded in their flesh and on their own territory, American citizens would take to the streets to demand — as they had done during the Vietnam War — that their country be withdrawn not from Asia but from the Middle East.

With the end of the U.S. presence, everything would become possible: from the overthrow of the Arab regimes in place to the eventual disappearance of that foreign body in the land of Islam, the state of Israel. The conflict between the "believers" and the "infidels" would end in the total defeat of the latter, thus transforming the history of the world.

The main beneficiaries of Bin Laden's were the non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey, Iran and Israel.

In fact, exactly the opposite happened, at least — and this is an essential precision — in the short term. Driven by a desire for self-defense as much as revenge, the United States invaded Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, which had provided a sanctuary for al-Qaeda terrorists. Attacks on U.S. soil would result in more, not less, America in the Middle East. And the main beneficiaries of Bin Laden's destabilization enterprise were the non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey, Iran and, most importantly, Israel.

Everything happened as if Bin Laden's main intention was to strengthen the Jewish State. Polls conducted in the Arab world as early as 2011 showed (and continue to show) that only a tiny minority of Muslims (1 per 100,000) recognize themselves in the radical project carried by Bin Laden. Moreover, as Fareed Zakaria notes in The Washington Post, the vast majority of Islamist groups, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa — not forgetting of course the Taliban in Afghanistan — are local, not global. Their destructive capabilities have not been eliminated, but severely curtailed.


Two pictures showing America's beginning and end of the war in Afghanistan — Photo: Cover Images/ZUMA

Bin Laden has completely failed to unite Muslims behind his romantically bloody project. He succeeded — posthumously — in only one respect, which is certainly decisive: he weakened America and accelerated its departure from the Middle East. But the beneficiaries of this process are neither Muslims nor even Arabs: at the global level, they are the Chinese and the Russians.

In short, Bin Laden has weakened the radical Muslim world and weakened the liberal Western world. And he has done so essentially for the benefit of "Oriental despotism," to use the expression of the American philosopher of German origin, Karl Wittfogel. Historians will tell us whether it is not America above all that has weakened itself, by setting itself objectives that were simply not attainable: to transform Afghanistan and then Iraq into democracies based on the Western model. Foreign invasions never produce democratic regimes in poor and deeply divided societies.

Is the "Biden Doctrine" — which has just been clarified by its author the day after the fall of Kabul — as unrealistic today as Bin Laden's project was yesterday? For Biden, once America has put Afghanistan and the Middle East more generally in its past, it will finally be able to refocus on more important challenges such as global warming or its rivalry with China. It will do so by adopting methods of fighting terrorism or authoritarian rivals, which are more indirect, more appropriate and cost infinitely less in terms of money and human lives.

In geopolitics, perceptions are an essential part of reality.

Unfortunately, the assumption that America — with its allies — are in a much better position to face the challenges of 2021 (which are not the same as those of 2001), is not only partially founded. It presupposes, first of all, that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for terrorists. This is far from being guaranteed.

And in geopolitics, perceptions are an essential part of reality. Yet the perception of America — by its adversaries as well as by its allies — has changed profoundly since September 11, 2001 and even more so since the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Europeans spontaneously offered their help to their wounded American brother: an offer disdainfully declined. In this summer of 2021, Europe is no longer wondering what it can do for America, but how it can live without it.

In search of a new "life insurance" policy, it turns to itself. But can Europe — despite its laudable declarations of commitment — present itself as an alternative to America, a credible recourse, if not for the world, at least for itself? In fact, it has no choice. The "return of America" is not the return of the West, no more deeply united in the face of the climate challenge than in the face of China.

Bin Laden has weakened the Arab-Muslim world and the Western world, strengthened Israel and accelerated the rise of Asia. This is a first reading that we will necessarily watch evolve over time.

Geopolitics
Jacques Attali

Afghan Lesson Again: Why A Democracy Cannot Be Imposed

Becoming a democracy is not something willed upon a nation, especially by another country.

Upon handing over the keys to 10 Downing Street in 1963, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously said to his successor Alec Douglas-Home: "My dear boy, as long as you don't invade Afghanistan you'll be absolutely fine." It is advice that too few have followed, including Tony Blair sending the British military to participate in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

And yet, the first three British failures in Afghanistan should have been a warning: as the Scottish historian William Dalrymple explains in his book Return of a King : the Battle for Afghanistan, the fourth and most recent Anglo-Afghan war was an extraordinary remake of the first, started in 1839.

For example, the Afghan president from 2004 to 2014, Hamid Karzai, belonged to the same Popalzai minority tribe as the puppet appointed by England in 1839, Shan Shuja ul-Mulk. And Mohammad Shan Khan, the military chief who led the extermination of the British army in 1841, was the heir of the same dynasty (the Hotaki, ruling the Ghilzai, one of the components of the Pashtun people) as the main Taliban ruler, Mullah Omar, ultimately assassinated in 2013.

By hand-picking leaders without knowing the reality of a civilization and history, by pretending to impose a democracy using corrupted chiefs and a foreign army, it was clear that the Western coalition that entered the country after the 9/11 attacks had as little chance as 150 years ago to put in place a stable and legitimate democracy.

Many countries are at risk of turning into dictatorships again.

Of course, Afghanistan is not the only country where it has happened. There have been other such failures, in the transition to a lasting democracy, of dictatorships, or colonized or invaded countries: Algeria, Egypt, Russia, Iraq.

And yet, there have also been examples of success: democracies that were sustainably put in place after periods of dictatorships (Spain, Chile, some parts of the former Yugoslavia); others after the occupation of a foreign power (Germany, Austria, Italy, countries from Eastern Europe, Japan, South Korea); others still after a period of colonization (India, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ghana), sometimes a long time after colonizers left the land.

And today? Many countries are at risk of turning into dictatorships again; or of not getting through it if the West removes its support: what will happen to Mali, if the French army is removed? To Taiwan if the American military shield is removed? To Lebanon, if the much hoped-for help does not arrive? And even to India, where democracy seems so unstable?What can be done to avoid these disasters? How can a constructive lesson be drawn from the Afghan disaster?

Examples from the past show that a country cannot successfully make a lasting transition to democracy by having it imposed from above by foreign powers, without taking into account its history, its cultural diversity, the existence of a national identity, of a civil society, of the desire to live together, of a powerful group determined to fight to hold it in place; and, without the real liberation of women and young people from the dictatorship of patriarchy.

Then it is clear that it is easier to become a democracy when neighboring countries are already democratic; hence the success, even still fragile, in Eastern Europe, in South America, and in parts of Africa.

We cannot build a democracy if we do not give top priority to education, women's rights, the honest participation of everyone in public decisions and the fight against corruption and nepotism.

Nor when international aid is not conditioned on a move towards democracy and human rights, which almost no donor country and no international financial institution does (with the exception of the OECD, which does the competent and discreet job of training and advising even non-member countries).

Finally, when a democratic system proves itself to be incapable of managing long-term issues, or indulges in petty political debates, any democracy, even ours, is threatened.

Future
Stefano Lupieri

Seeing Green: How Algae Can Change Our Diets, Health And the Climate

Algae could bring solutions to major challenges such as carbon sequestration and world hunger, provided we succeed in building an industrial sector.

The installation is a little artisanal, but the spectacle is no less fascinating. Specimens of Palmaria palmata twirl around in large columns of water, fed by a forest of flexible pipes, and unfold their amaranth-red tentacles following the bubbles that agitate the environment.

Arranged in a dark room, these vertical aquariums are surrounded by LED ribbons that focus the light on the wall of the tubes and attract the eye. The transparency and colorful shades of this algae, better known by the name dulse, are intensified. It might look like an art exhibit, but it's actually the Roscoff Biological Station, one of the most advanced research centers on algae in Europe, with around 100 scientists dedicated to studying the aquatic organism.

Philippe Potin, a senior researcher at the CNRS, says, "In nature, this species grows attached to rocks. But here, we are trying to study it in a suspended environment. Our goal is to soon be able to control its reproduction mechanisms."

Potin arrived at the Roscoff Biological Station about 30 years ago for his thesis, and has never left. The buildings — the oldest of which dates back to the 17th century — benefit from an exceptional geographical location with an unobstructed view of the bay and the island of Batz. To collect algae, researchers just go down to the beach at low tide. The station houses one of the richest collections of algae in the world, with nearly 9,000 strains.

I have never seen such a craze for this resource.

The center is equipped with a battery of freezers to preserve these specimens up to minus 150°C. "We can thus respond at any time to requests from researchers around the world and also from companies," says Potin. In addition to its fundamental research — which has enabled it to decipher the genome of some 50 algae species — the station works in close collaboration with industry players to improve cultivation techniques and extracting active ingredients and thus promote the emergence of a commercial sector.

"Since I have been working in this field, I have never seen such a craze for this resource," says Potin. In fact, all over the world, new applications are being tested in a wide variety of industries, from biomaterials to biopesticides, including health and human food. So many sectors are waiting for biosourced alternatives to replace their synthetic components.

Algae may suffer from a negative reputation from holidaymakers because of green tides, but in the eyes of some, it's the solution to major global challenges such as carbon sequestration. 50% of the air we breathe we owe to algae's photosynthesis properties that allow them to produce oxygen by consuming CO2. Algae's protein content also makes them a potential answer to world hunger. Moreover, to grow, they only need light and carbon. A real green gold! But we still need to remove the obstacles that prevent the sector from becoming more widespread.

The potential of algae is not new. After having extracted sodium bicarbonate and iodine for a long time, the coastal Brittany region has used algae since the 1960s for their alginates, the complex sugars that form their extracellular membrane. Alginates are used as texturizers or gelling agents in the food and hygiene-beauty industries. In the 1970s and '80s, the sector experienced a first boom in cosmetic uses.

But it is mainly as biofuels that these marine plants rich in oils have raised the most hopes. Jean-François Sassi, the head of microalgae processes and technologies at CEA Cadarache, has been involved in this adventure from the start.

"In the 2000s, the steady rise in oil prices gave credence to this green alternative and led to a real craze among many entrepreneurs, particularly in the United States," says Sassi. This was until the 2008 recession caused the price of oil to fall and the bubble burst. Even if TotalEnergies or Exxon continue their research on the subject, for the moment, we still don't know how to make an algal biofuel at an acceptable price.


Algae bread at Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, Germany — Photo: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/DPA/ZUMA

Caution, therefore, must be taken when talking about the promises of algae. Especially since far from forming a large homogeneous group as many imagine, these organisms have very different characteristics depending on their lineage. Variations are found not only between the two large families of macros and microalgae, but also within each of them. "There are as many genetic differences between a green alga and a red alga as there are between an elephant and a mushroom," says Philippe Potin.

Today, it is estimated that there are several tens of thousands of species of macroalgae present in nature and several hundred thousand species of microalgae in fresh or salt water. But only a very small number of them have been studied. And we exploit even less. One of the first challenges to go to an industrial scale is to be able to cultivate them. In Asia, where they are consumed fresh, we know how to produce them in mass. In fact, 96% of the 36 million tons cultivated each year are grown on this continent.

In France, the Breton coasts are home to one of the most beautiful forests of seaweed in the world with nearly 800 species. Frédéric Faure is the general manager of Algaia, one of the two major Breton alginate production plants. Algaia, which was acquired from Cargill in 2017, works with a fleet of 40 seaweed boats that harvest the resource offshore.

The company is mainly interested in Laminaria digitata and hyperborea. "With 40,000 tons per year, we are the first French harvester and the second in Europea, after one in Norway," says Faure. The entrepreneur is quick to point out that in France, the resource is managed in a very strict manner and that only 4 to 5% of the total is taken. But Philippe Potin is less reassured: "In some areas, such as the Molène archipelago, the pressure is much stronger."

Harvesting at sea poses other problems. This is the option chosen in particular by Olmix, a company created in the 1970s that has developed internationally by selling animal health products based on algae and clays. Founder Hervé Balusson says, "We collect and exploit 7,000 to 8,000 tons per year." The company uses service providers who harvest the resource on the shore in less than a meter of water using a tractor equipped with a conveyor belt.

Australia and New Zealand have lost nearly 50% of their seaweed forests.

But this activity is also subject to criticism. "Some local residents consider that it reflects a lack of political will to act on the causes of the eutrophication phenomenon responsible for green tides and that it should therefore be called into question," says Philippe Potin. In short, betting only on the natural resource whose quantity is likely to vary from one year to the next can, in the long run, prove risky. All the more so as, in Brittany, we are suffering from the proliferation of algae, elsewhere in the world climate change has rather reduced the resource. Potin notes that Australia and New Zealand have lost nearly 50% of their seaweed forests.

Fortunately, France has already begun the shift to cultivating, even if France is still far from the large Asian farms. With its two concessions of 150 and 200 hectares, located in Lesconil and Moëlan-sur-mer, Algolesko is already the largest seaweed farm in Europe. The adventure has not been easy for Philippe Legorjus, Algolesko's president. "It took time to master the techniques of seeding in our hatchery on land, as well as to develop the right "wire" device weighted at 20 meters deep and able to support the weight of crops and resist the assaults of storms," says Legorjus. But everything is now up and running.

This year, the farm harvested 150 tons, mainly wakame, kombu and sweet kelp. "We are aiming for 1,000 tons in three years," says Legorjus, a former commander of the French national police force, who also intends to develop multitrophic aquaculture in partnership with oyster farmers.

Unlike macroalgae which can be harvested, their microscopic cousins, invisible to the naked eye, have no other alternative to be exploited than to be cultivated. All who start the enterprise are confronted with the same problem: the productivity of the crop. And therefore its cost.

The AlgoSolis research platform in Saint-Nazaire, which originated at the University of Nantes, has worked on a wide range of cultivating equipment.


A seaweed farmer gathers edible seaweed that has grown on a rope, in Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia — Photo: Jean-Marie Hullot

"The most traditional method consists of placing "inoculums' in "raceways," large open basins exposed to daylight and equipped with a paddle wheel to create movement in the water. The microalgae will then develop by cell division," says Jack Legrand, a professor emeritus in process engineering, who is behind this equipment, which is unique in Europe.

But with this type of device, only 50 tons per hectare per year can be produced on average. This is not enough for applications that require large volumes such as biofuels, as it would require monopolizing kilometers of crops. This explains why, for the time being, microalgae are mainly used in high value-added applications such as omega 3-based food supplements, in the form of pigments for the food industry or in cosmetic products.

But cultivation techniques are evolving. Some manufacturers are already using "photobioreactors' with vertical or tubular structures. This is the case of Microphyt, which specializes in ingredients for nutrition and cosmetics and has just received a 15 million euro grant from the European Commission and the Bioindustries Consortium to build the largest microalgae biorefinery in the world. "The advantage of these devices is that they take up much less land," says Jack Legrand. But we still have to succeed in supplying them with light and carbon. To make 1 kilogram of biomass, you need 1.6 kilogram of CO2. The AlgoSolis platform has patented a system of cultivation on a film of water that allows much higher yields, up to 20 grams per liter against 1 to 2 grams for "raceways."

The start-up Inalve claims to go much further. Based in the Ecovallée region of the Var plain, Inalve has taken over a patent from the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (Inria) to develop a device capable of producing up to 200 grams per liter. The process uses biofilms installed on rollers that rotate in basins. The company is not afraid to target the aquaculture and animal feed markets, for which it will have to produce large volumes.

CEO Christophe Vasseur says they plan to launch the commercial farm on several dozen hectares by 2024. "23 tests are underway with industrial partners to evaluate the effectiveness of our microalgae concentrate, rich in proteins, lipids and complex sugars," says Vasseur.

The photobioreactors developed by Suez in partnership with Fermentalg are based on an even different model. Initially, the two partners were primarily interested in developing systems that could capture carbon and clean up the atmosphere. Demonstrators were installed in schoolyards and on industrial sites. But the CO2 resource proved to be either too dilute or too polluted to consider microalgae production systems.

Through their new joint venture CarbonWorks, Suez and Fermentalg are now focusing on the market for methanizers that produce 90% pure carbon. "We have just installed the first pre-industrial equipment with a capacity of 10 m3 at the Cestas methanization site in Gironde," says Jérôme Arnaudis, head of air quality activities at Suez. In addition to limiting carbon emissions, these systems will make it possible to produce a microalgae used by the Gironde-based start-up Immunrise in a biocontrol product for vines, a real virtuous circle!

Farmers are waiting for alternative solutions to chemical inputs.

But the development of the sector will also necessarily involve the identification and extraction of new active ingredients. Here too, things are moving forward. In fact, the Olmix and Algaia plants have become real biorefineries.

"Yesterday, we only used alginates, which is 20 to 30% of our biomass," says Frédéric Faure. "Today, we are able to extract about 10 molecules of interest with a wide range of applications. The extraction process is designed so that the residue from one operation becomes the raw material for the next."

The two companies have thus been able to diversify into the biopesticides and biostimulants market for agriculture, among others. "Farmers are waiting for alternative solutions to chemical inputs," says Hervé Balusson.

In parallel to these generalist approaches, we are also seeing an increase in the number of start-ups that are betting on specialized applications, both in macro and microalgae. Eranova has set its sights on the packaging plastics market for the food and cosmetics industry. Located in the port area of Fos-sur-Mer, this company not only wants to use the green algae that washes up in the Etang de Berre but also to develop its own production in ponds. CEO Philippe Lavoisier says that "For the moment, we have installed a demonstrator on one hectare and a small biorefinery of 500 tons. But we are in advanced negotiations to have 50 hectares on the site with an industrial unit capable of processing 28,000 tons." Eranova is thinking big.

Olgram, on the other hand, will only need a few 100 kilos of active ingredient to serve its market. This start-up is targeting a medical application. Managing director Pierre Rochete says, "We have taken up the research of a team from the University of Nantes, which has demonstrated the beneficial effects of a molecule extracted from Ulva armoricana on immunosuppression following cranial trauma." Even if they are still in preclinical studies, this is a market that potentially includes nearly five million people in Europe and the United States.

Algama, for its part, is digging into the food sector. Until now, seaweed was consumed either as a condiment for salads or pasta, as a powder in chips or bread or as a texturizer, for example in ham. But this start-up has found a way to make a microalgae-based powder that can replace eggs in the manufacturing of mayonnaise, buns or cookies. "We are also working on recipes for salmon or vegetable tuna that would have the same texture and energy content as the originals," says Jean-Paul Cadoret, the company's scientific director.

The sector also needs convinced investors.

For this expert, who is also president of the European Algae Biomass Association, the development of the sector will come from this range of new applications. "It is the added value brought by these products that will allow us to increase the volumes," says Cadoret. However, many of these projects are still at the pre-industrial stage. "To grow, the sector also needs investors who believe in its development potential," says Philippe Legorjus.

To accelerate the process, the Lloyd Register Foundation, in partnership with the United Nations Global Compact, has just launched an international call for projects in all fields of algae exploitation. "We are going to try to convince major food and packaging companies to join us in co-financing," says Philippe Potin, who coordinates the steering and selection committees on behalf of the CNRS, which includes major groups such as Nestlé and Metro.

In another field, the Oceans 2050 Foundation, created by Alexandra Cousteau, has launched a study of some 20 farms around the world to establish scientifically that the cultivation of algae allows the burial of a large quantity of carbon in the underlying sediments. "We will then be able to build a carbon credit system that would allow large companies to invest in this type of farm," says the granddaughter of the famous commander. This is the sine qua non condition for the emergence of a complete ecosystem, allowing this resource to finally live up to its undeniable promise.

Economy
Anne-Claire Bennevault

Don't Trust The TikTok Business Gurus

Anne-Claire Bennevault, founder of consulting firm BNVLT and think tank SPAK.fr, weighs in on the rise of the so-called "finfluencers".

Op-Ed

Some 15 or 20 years ago, if you were looking to get into finance, you would read the Wall Street Journal, pay attention to Henry Kaufman's analyses and closely follow both Ray Dalio's speeches and Warren Buffet's masterclasses. These traditional financial gurus do continue to have very large audiences, but now they are rivaled by tech-savvy newcomers who understand the power of social media.

If you're over 35, you probably haven't heard of the "finfluencers." They include Alessio Rastani, Robert Breedlove, Dan de Chartguys and Erik Crown. They are active on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Finfluencers use their platforms to help you manage your personal finances and sometimes even teach you investing techniques. They usually specialize in either technical analysis, the stock market or crypto-assets, and it is safe to say their audiences are only growing.

The most recent Audirep survey from the Bank of France, dated July 2020, highlighted a paradox: The majority of French people (52%) are interested in financial news and topics, but many face significant gaps in their financial education. In other words, they have not mastered basic financial knowledge.

The finfluencers are often talented, with many being self-taught, sometimes not having had any previous experience in finance at all.

Thus, the rise of the finfluencers is theoretically good news. They are helping to democratize personal finance issues and are making complex topics — such as blockchain and crypto-assets — accessible to all. While major financial institutions struggle to reach out to 18-35 year olds, finfluencers have succeeded in capturing their attention by offering perfectly tailored content in the form of short, dynamic videos and other posts that avoids financial jargon and reaches them via the channels they use most: social media.

A study released by Lending Tree in January 2021 showed that 41% of Americans in Generation Z (those born after 1995) reported using TikTok to learn about financial information during December 2020. The implication of these findings demonstrates that young people prefer social media over traditional avenues. This is likely because they have already mastered the technology and know-how to find people that will explain things to them simply and without judgment.

The finfluencers are often talented, with many being self-taught, sometimes not having had any previous experience in finance at all. They are also very good at monetizing their audience. However, not all finfluencers are reliable. Some fail to warn their audiences about the inherent dangers involved with financial investments. One of these risks is related to leverage, which functions similarly to credit and allows you to invest more than you have in the stock market, but can also lead to massive losses in the event of a market downturn.

Finfluencer Carmen Perez runs the personal finance blog makerealcents.com — Photo: makerealcents via Instagram

This is where we reach the limits of democratizing financial education via social media platforms, which exist outside of any regulation. You cannot simply wake up and decide to be a financial investment advisor. Reality TV star Nabilla Benattia-Vergara is a perfect example of this: She was forced to pay a 20,000-euro fine for promoting stock market services on Snapchat without mentioning that she was paid for the advertisement.

It is important to remember that in France, financial investment advising is a strictly regulated profession, as evidenced by the rules related to insurance coverage, membership in professional associations, registration with the Organization for the Unique Registry of Insurance, Banking and Finance Intermediaries, etc. The field follows several rules connected to good conduct and ethics.

We should be pleased to see more and more young people becoming interested in their personal finances, and social media is a good starting point for financial education. But, on the other hand, there needs to be more oversight of finfluencer activity.

Social media sites have started to take more responsibility by issuing warnings, sometimes going so far as to ban some unscrupulous finfluencers and updating their terms of service. For instance, TikTok recently updated its regulations to prohibit users from advertising financial services on its platform, and Google announced that it will take new steps in the fall. In France, it is becoming more urgent that the Financial Market Authority (Autorité des marchés financiers) takes a closer look at the subject.

The financial brands that will succeed in capturing a long-term young audience will be those that succeed in getting onto these platforms.

Moreover, financial institutions, the old-school interlocutors when it comes to savings, should also adapt their content and messages to address young people. This involves becoming active on social media, including potentially forming partnerships with serious players in the online finance field and modifying their content so that it corresponds with Gen Z's expectations.

The key takeaway is that the approach that once worked for 35-50 year olds does not work for young people, as they do not have the same relationship with social media, nor the same life trajectories, assets or income expectations. In addition, financial institutions must deal with and offer support to young people, as they have experienced more generalized financial insecurity and lack of employment opportunities.

In recent years, all the major banks have adapted their offerings to young people by avoiding thinking of them solely as students who need to only be addressed at the beginning and end of the school year. They have come to understand that their profile is more diverse, whether they be young professionals, interns, students or unemployed.

According to a study conducted by Diplomeo, 73% of 16-25 year olds get their information from "social networks," with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook leading the way. This is why the financial brands that will succeed in capturing a long-term young audience will be those that succeed in getting onto these platforms, as more and more young people will exclusively use them to plan their financial futures.

Economy
Hortense Goulard

All Aboard Europe's Night-Train Revival

After years of letting overnight rail travel fade into oblivion, France and other European countries are rushing to reverse course. Doing so will be easier said than done, however.

BRUSSELS — With the summer season just about to kick off, France's prime minister, Jean Castex, celebrated the reopening this past May of the Paris-Nice night train, a route that has been closed since 2017, by making the trip himself. It was a "symbolic" journey to highlight the rapid realization of the government's recovery plan, which includes pumping 100 million euros back into the country's network of night trains.

Castex, a notorious lover of railways, did not fail to highlight the "environmental dimension" of night-time rail travel. The initiative comes as a proposed climate law is being debated in the National Assembly. And even though his return to Paris by plane took away some of the strength of the publicity stunt, it did not detract from the new fervor of travelers — and railroad companies — for night trains.

France isn't the only European country embracing the revival. In Berlin, Brussels and Vienna too, powerful voices are being raised in defense of a mode of transportation that is incomparably more sustainable than air travel.

The rebound follows a long period of neglect. In the early 1980s, France had up to 550 stations served by several dozen night routes. But the government, faced with costs deemed too high, stopped financing them. The national rail company SNCF closed connections one after the other, and by 2020, there were only two left: one between Paris and Briançon, the other between Paris and Latour-de-Carol/Cerbère.

Across the continent, only a handful of central European countries kept a network worthy of the name. Austria in particular stands out in this regard, with a network of lines that connect to a multitude of destinations: Prague, Warsaw, Hamburg, Rome and even Kiev.

"I try not to fly in Europe. I take the train or the bus to go everywhere"

To get a sense of Austria's persistent love for a mode of transport that was said to have no future, last October I boarded a Nightjet train operated by the ÖBB, the Austrian national railway company. At the time I had no idea of the long winter quarantine to come. Departure at 6:04 p.m. from Brussels-Midi station, arrival at 8:27 a.m. at Wien Hauptbahnhof (Vienna's central station), after stops in Liège, Aachen, Cologne, Nuremberg, Passau and Linz. Unbeknownst to any of us, this was the last chance weekend before the borders were closed due to a new outbreak of COVID-19.

Night had already fallen on the Belgian capital when I approached the platform, under a fine and persistent rain, truly Brussels-like. At the entrance of the carriage, a couple speaking Russian and Austrian to their children tried to settle down. A controller lead me to my cabin, one of the train's most luxurious, with a real bed with sheets and an individual bathroom. As a sanitary precaution, I had the place to myself, although it can theoretically accommodate two people.

The cabin was new and comfortable and the bathroom well equipped with towels and shampoo, even if the hot water didn't seem to work. The welcome pack included a bottle of water, a mini-bottle of sparkling wine, cookies, slippers and earplugs. The dinner, served hot on a tray, at a reasonable price (less than 10 euros) was surprisingly good. A steward brought a menu to choose the breakfast, which comes included in the ticket price. Passengers can order it before going to bed, specifying their wake-up time.

After dropping off my luggage, I went out again to chat with other passengers — on such a trip, everyone has time. In the next cabin, a young Belgian couple, Flemings who live in Brussels, were on their way to a family reunion. They offered two arguments in favor of the night train: price and ecology. "I try not to fly in Europe. I take the train or the bus to go everywhere," said the young man, who then recalled a rail journey of several days in South Africa, between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

A little further on, two young Flemish women, who live in Ghent and Bruges, explained that they'd taken the train "on a whim." One worked in Vienna as a volunteer. The plan was to spend the weekend there. "The night train was cheaper than the plane," they said. Next to them, an Austrian woman who works at the European Parliament explained that she'd already taken this line, launched in February 2019, several times. It's "particularly convenient," she said, especially compared to the daytime train, which requires several changes.

Breakfast on the ÖBB Nightjet — Photo: @denisevandenbeemt via Instagram

It is not only the younger generation who are in favor of the night train for ecological reasons. A retired couple from Luxembourg, who went to Aachen to visit their son in Vienna, said that she'd be too afraid of an accident if they took the car. As for flying, "it's morally indefensible," said her husband, who speaks German with a strong Luxembourg accent. "I've never set foot on a plane in my life."

In Sweden, people even have a word for the guilt one feels about traveling by air: "flygskam." A little further down the line, a 20-year-old college student wasn't afraid to spend the night alone in a seating compartment. The night train "fit the schedule and the price is good," she said. She has a phobia of air travel, which she only takes as a last resort, she explained. And it's true that it's "not bad for the environment," the young woman added.

Fares vary according to the comfort category, and according to the number of reservations: The cheapest seats cost at least 29 euros. In the compartments with extended seats, but a minimal level of comfort, the ticket starts at 50 or 60 euros, while the most comfortable bunks are around 80 to 90 euros — 140 euros to be alone. The most luxurious cabin exceeds 170 euros per night, or even much more, depending on the route.

The Austrian company intends to take advantage of the public's renewed interest in night trains. "For the past three years, we have seen a strong demand for night travel," says spokesman Bernhard Rieder. In 2019, the ÖBB welcomed 1.5 million passengers on its Nightjets. "In good years, we don't necessarily lose money on night trains," he adds. "2019 was a very good year."

It was in 2015 that the operator decided to invest heavily in night routes. At the time, the German railway company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), had decided to close its remaining lines. "Our network was connected to Deutsche Bahn's, so we had to decide what to do. We could either keep our small, not very well-connected network, or we could expand it," says Rieder. "We had a very intense discussion and the management finally decided to operate a large part of Deutsche Bahn's lines, not all of them but the ones that fit our network."

To meet European climate objectives, it is therefore essential to encourage low-carbon means of transport.

The ÖBB now operates 19 night train routes. The latest, Brussels-Vienna, opened in January 2020. Next stop: Paris-Vienna this December.

The number of announcements has increased recently. In addition to Paris-Vienna, Zurich-Amsterdam should open at the end of the year, followed by Zurich-Rome in 2022, Berlin-Paris and Berlin-Brussels in 2023 and Zurich-Barcelona in 2024.

France is eager to get on board the trend as well. The government has announced the opening of two new lines before 2022: Jean Castex's Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes. He wants to initiate a debate in Parliament on the reopening of dozens of lines, which would not necessarily pass through the capital. One would allow travel from Brittany to the Côte d'Azur; another could link Metz and Strasbourg to Nice, Bordeaux or Barcelona.

Still, there are obstacles to how far France can go with the revival. "Given the major work to be done on the network, it will be complicated to open many other lines until 2025," Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said in an interview with Le Parisien. Orders for new cars from Bombardier or Alstom could take years to complete — at a cost potentially exceeding 1 billion euros.

This investment is justified as part of the fight against climate change, night-train advocates insist. According to the European Environment Agency, transport accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union. And they are not decreasing, unlike those of electricity production and industry. To meet European climate objectives, it is therefore essential to encourage low-carbon means of transport.

Ademe has calculated that a passenger traveling in France in a TER over a distance of 900 km emits just under 5 kg of CO2. The same trip by plane emits about 207 kg (this last figure takes into account the "condensation trails' that form behind the planes and interact with other gases in the atmosphere). The carbon footprint of trains obviously varies depending on how electricity is produced in each country — nuclear in France; coal, gas and renewables in Germany. But the vast majority of rail journeys emit far less CO2 than the same journey by plane or car, according to the comparison site Ecopassenger.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex celebrates the reopening of the Paris-Nice night train — Photo: Panoramic/ZUMA

Night trains are particularly suitable for distances of 600 to 1,800 kilometers, i.e. for journeys between major European cities. "These trains are definitely not a niche," says Karima Delli, chairwoman of the European Parliament's Transport Committee. She pleads for a "real network of night trains' at the continental level.

For the moment, the European Commission is far from being so enthusiastic. It has already been trying for nearly 20 years to make rail networks inter-operable, with mixed results. Safety standards, for example, often differ from one country to another and represent an avoidable additional cost for companies.

To revive night trains, the public authorities must be involved, says Christophe Fanichet, who heads the SNCF's Passenger Division. Without subsidies, they are generally not profitable. Also, the number of passengers is limited, between 60 and 100 per train, rather than several hundred in daytime convoys, says Rieder, the ÖBB spokesman. And they require more staff, usually one employee per car — not counting breakfast or dinner costs.

To cope with these high costs, the Austrian operator has chosen to go upmarket. "In general, the compartment with bunks is filled very quickly," notes Rieder. But the company does not yet have enough cars of this type to meet the growing demand. This problem will soon be solved. In 2018, the ÖBB placed an order with Siemens for 13 new train sets. Total contract value: 1.5 billion euros. Delivery is scheduled for 2022.

The Austrian company wants to take advantage of this to modernize the image of its cars, with a new, more elegant design. Another new feature is the plan to launch tiny cabins, called "mini-suites."

"One of the strong demands of our customers is to have their own private space," explains Bernhard Rieder, the ÖBB spokesperson. These bunks, inspired by the capsule beds found in certain Japanese hotels, will meet this demand at a lower price than the classic cabins. But until it attracts more and wealthier customers, Rieder adds, the ÖBB's night train business is just about breaking — even in "very good years."

Future
Johanne Courbatère de Gaudric

The Latest Cosmetic Innovation? 3-D Bioprinting Beauty

L'Oréal and other French cosmetic brands are delving into the creepy realm of printing the equivalent of human flesh.

PARIS — The days of rusty, old inkjet printers from the 1970s are long gone. At the inkjet's inception, the thought of printing "flesh and blood" would have been the stuff of science fiction. Today, however, 3-D bioprinting has become a reality, both in technological and economic terms. The proof is in the pudding: The market, which represented $1.4 billion worldwide in 2020, is expected to grow to $4.4 billion in 2028. For the cosmetics industry, which often relies on "artificial" skin to test products, this cutting-edge technology is of particular interest.

3-D printing skin has two primary objectives: the first is to gain a more precise understanding of human skin and its biological mechanisms, and the second, for the cosmetics world, is to accelerate the production of skin samples in order to test new products. Christophe Masson is the CEO of Cosmetic Valley, a high-technology cluster specializing in the production of consumer goods in the perfumes ands industry of perfumes and cosmetics.

"The rise of bioprinting is part of several phenomena," says Masson. "It may not be immediately obvious, but France is the leading exporter of cosmetics in the world. We hold this position because we continue to innovate skincare products that emphasize safety, performance and durability. On an industrial and more general level, the principle of 3-D printing is at the heart of what we call new "rapidly prototyping technology."

Because of the extensive process, some scientists even go so far as to refer to it as 4-D

In essence, 3-D printing allows brands to adapt their production processes in order to create products faster while allowing for greater flexibility and customization. Masson says, "This is great because we are entering an era where cosmetics needs to be adaptable to individual needs. 3-D printing is a remarkable technology because it allows us to keep up with this evolution."

Luckily for French cosmetology brands, the leaders in skin bioprinting are also French. Among them are two start-ups that began in 2014: Poietis, founded by Fabien Guillemot, a former researcher at Inserm, and LabSkin Creations, which is based in Lyon and was built by Amélie Thépot, a doctor in cell biology.

The way 3-D bioprinting works is similar to the way the printers we have at home or in our offices function, except that the ink used is made of bio-materials and living cells. Layer by layer, according to the principle of additive manufacturing, the printer assembles biological tissues, which can be bone, cartilage or skin.

For the latter, it takes about three weeks for the material to really take shape. Because of the extensive process, some scientists even go so far as to refer to it as 4-D. Fabien Guillemot, the founder of Poietis, says, "In 3-D printing skin, we have already introduced a fourth dimension, which is related to the time needed to create skin. After printing the successive layers, the artificial skin must to go through a stage of cell maturation, or "cell culture." During this process, the cells will interact with the bio-materials and their environment to begin multiplying."

Of the world's rising technologies and innovations, bioprinting artificial human skin holds a special place. Used for scientific research, knowledge development and testing, artificial skin is at the heart of many controversies related to ethics and product safety. In this regard, Europe has some of the strictest regulations in the world. But even before the bloc banned animal testing in March 2013, the cosmetics industry was already looking for alternative evaluation protocols for its products. By forming partnerships with the world of public research, new methods and technologies were developped, namely bioprinting.

An image of Labskin Creations' 3D bioprinted "functional human hypodermis" — Photo: Labskin Creations

The L'Oréal group is one corporation that has looked into these issues. Elisabeth Bouhadana, international scientific director of the L'Oréal Paris brand, says, "In cosmetics, there is no risk-benefit analysis like there is in the medical or pharmaceutical world. Recently, given the global situation, we have heard more about this this notion and the possibility of side effects that some drugs or vaccines can induce."

Bouhadana adds that in her industry, the products launched cannot present any risk, they must be 100% safe. To guarantee this safety, numerous tests are carried out, particularly those performed in vitro on human skin models reconstructed in the laboratory.

"You could say the media played a role, particularly during the 1970s at L'Oréal," says Bouhadana. "At that time, the entire cosmetics industry was experimenting on animals, which was problematic both for ethical and scientific reasons. Scientifically, the results lacked reliability, as human skin is very different from pig skin, for example."

In 1979, one of the group's researchers succeeded in creating the first epidermal cell culture in the laboratory. By 1989, the reconstructed skin model was used to test the effectiveness of products. Later on, the company would go on to sign a partnership with the American bioprinting start-up Organovo in 2015, sharing the same goal of continuing to advance scientific research in the field of 3-D printing human skin.

"[3-D printing technology] allows us to enter and study the infinitely small organ, skin"

Luc Aguilar, a biologist and the director of advanced research at L'Oréal, explains the many possibilities for bioprinting, such as the ability to "analyze and fight against the formation of pigmentation spots." Aguilars says the technology allows us to "enter the infinitely small organ (skin) and study its micro-anatomy."

Another possible advancement that could come about because of bioprinting is the study of atopic eczema, a condition that affects millions of people. "Thanks to bioprinting, we are able to reproduce eczematous lesions in a healthy environment, by printing healthy and damaged cells on the same epidermal area," says Aguilar, who recently published a scientific article on the subject in the journal Nature.

And finally, another advantage of bioprinting is that it allows us to obtain much more reliable predictive models for testing. Virginie Couturaud, Dior's director of scientific communications, says that previous iterations of reconstructed skins were basically made by hand.

"Now, since they are manufactured according to predefined computer parameters, we can benefit from more stable and more calibrated models," says Couturaud.

The luxury brand has been using this technology to develop its skincare products for over four years. "It allows us to better determine the way each ingredient behaves and interacts, which is an essential element in the early stages of product development," say Couturaud. "We are only at the beginning and it is clear that bioprinting offers great opportunities for cosmetics."

Geopolitics
Sébastien Boussois*

Are We Witnessing The Unraveling Of OPEC?

The pandemic has exacerbated tensions within the petroleum cartel, eroded Saudi Arabia's hegemony, and led to shifting internal alliances. An era may be over.

-Analysis-

Everyone is talking about the post-oil era, but in all likelihood, that horizon is still far away. OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is very much still calling the shots in the energy sector and, consequently, in the global economy. Nothing happens in isolation on the international stage.

In April 2020, Saudi Arabia, struggling with worsening economic insecurity, suddenly opted to increase its oil production within the organization. Now, the kingdom's long-time ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is looking to do the same thing, and in the process, is openly opposing other members, including Saudi Arabia.

Up until now, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh held a strong bond, forming an untouchable strategic and political axis. In the midst of the blockade crisis, this partnership seemed all the tighter when Qatar, a sworn enemy of the Persian Gulf, chose to leave OPEC. The loss of Qatari opposition had the effect of reducing existing internal tensions within the organization.

Each member country has its own agenda and economic concerns that typically steer the enactment of new and different production rules for the years to come. In the case of the UAE, the pandemic has been very costly, forcing it, among other things, to postpone the Dubai 2020 World Expo by one year.

Qatar stands to gain from these Gulf state tensions

It is therefore all-the-more urgent for the UAE to increase its oil production both to compensate for losses incurred and to quickly increase its foreign exchange earnings. OPEC's goal of reducing oil production until at least through 2022 is unthinkable.

By the end of 2019, the UAE had at least 100 billion barrels of oil in reserve, placing the country in eighth place globally with nearly 6% of total world reserves. It's limited, however, by 2018 OPEC agreements stipulating that Abu Dhabi produce only 3.17 million barrels per day, even though it has the potential to produce almost 4 million.

In the past the UAE has been discreet, opting to remain in Riyadh's shadow. Those days are over, though, and it has now become a major player in the organization. And, after several months of Abu Dhabi trying to quietly distance itself from its historical ally, the crack is for the first time taking place openly.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) receives Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca via ZUMA Press

Could this shift within OPEC signal the possibility of a violent rift to come between Mohammed bin Salmane — the heir to the Saudi throne — and his Emirati mentor? Perhaps. Either way, what is clear is that Qatar stands to gain from these Gulf state tensions.

The pandemic is largely responsible for the expected overturning of previously long-held alliances. The geopolitical and economic context was already tense, and a year of economic collapse has only exacerbated the situation. In 2020, every member state joined together in accusing Saudi Arabia of unilaterally increasing its production capacity, subsequently causing the price of oil to fall and destabilizing other OPEC countries, namely Russia. The self-interested, lone-wolf style of behavior has not been appreciated.

Thus, the Saudi monopoly is in many areas beginning to crack, and there's no clearer evidence of this than the UAE's public opposition. Saudi Arabia's historic hegemony has been severely undermined.

Still, it is in the interest of many that these tensions dissipate in order to avoid global destabilization. Under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, the United States, an ally of Saudi Arabia, had worked to resolve the crisis. But new President Joe Biden cannot be counted on to keep doing Saudi Arabia's bidding. Since his arrival at the White House in January, the Democrat has stated he wants to assess the relationship between the United States and this ally, and in particular with Mohammed ben Salmane.

Meanwhile, like Qatar, the UAE is also threatening to leave OPEC altogether if its demands are not met. Oil is only one of the things that bind Qatar and the UAE together. Other areas include the terrorist threat in the Middle East, their common opposition to Turkey, with its expansionist aims, and above all the common interest in normalizing relations with Israel. The UAE's threat may soon be realized. If so, the repercussions will be felt all over.

Watch Video Show less
Society
Romane Groleau

How COVID Sparked A Search For Roots In The French Countryside

ORLÉANS — Along the road in France's central region of Sologne, patches of the forest stretch one after the other as far as the eye can see. The region, dotted with 3,000 ponds and smack-dab in the middle of France, is also home to the Saint-Marc farm, where dozens of ewes stand guard as bees buzz around 400 hives. It's a beautiful place, built more than a century ago, with a long family tradition. And yet, until recently, nearly all agricultural activity had ceased.

Right now, though, the land is getting a second wind, thanks in large part to Nils Aucante, 33. Leaning against the counter of his store, this tall, blond-haired man with a kind smile offers me homemade honey candy before beginning to tell the story of his return to the Sologne region.

A few years ago, when the globe-trotting journalist was based in New York, he found himself dreaming of wide open spaces and sedentary life. He even thought of buying a farm ... in Wyoming. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Saint-Marc farm was falling into ruins. Aucante's grandfather, the owner of the farm, had resigned himself to the fact that, in his mind, farming has no future and that no one would ever want to buy Saint-Marc.

Faced with the decision between Wyoming and Sologne, Nils Aucante did not have to think long: "My attachment to this place built by my ancestors was very strong, I would have found it hard to live with myself knowing that I had watched our farm collapse." In early 2015, he made his decision: He would return to the fold. The goal? Rehabilitate the place by installing beehives and raising sheep. His grandfather tried to advise him to transform the building into a holiday cottage, but Nils Aucante was determined. But when he saw the flock arrive a year later, Aucante's grandfather was hopeful again: The Saint-Marc farm would not die out.

When you live with a Breton man or woman, there usually comes a time when they raise their sails and head west to go home.

Jean Viard, sociologist and associate director of research at Cevipof/CNRS, has observed a trend of people placing emphasis on "defining themselves by place and location. People have moved to places in the hopes of rediscovering their identity ... which can be seen in the body of research about localized belonging. Today, many people try to give themselves a dominant identity by the place they live. And when this place is inherited and has a family connection, that is even more reinforced."

Like Aucante, many others have chosen to return to the region where they have a personal or familial connection to carry out some type of project related to the land. Patrice Le Cain was born in Finistère, in Brittany. His parents learned French at school because at home they spoke Breton. When talking to him face-to-face, you can see the way he feels connected to the Brittany region.

"I have always been extremely proud of being Breton and of the history of Brittany. I feel like I'm going back to my roots," he said. For 20 years, Le Cain worked for a refrigerated transport company in Paris and then in Lille, before the opportunity to be transferred closer to home arose three years ago. He smiles and says, "when you live with a Breton man or woman, there usually comes a time when they raise their sails and head west to go home."

But the story does not end there. What Le Cain loves more than anything is to go out to sea with the local oyster farmers, whom he has befriended. "I love oysters, I love seafood. The seawater runs in my veins." When he is on a boat, Le Cain falls back into memories of his childhood, 30 years ago when he accompanied his father and grandfather on their fishing excursions. "I became stronger in ways that a landlubber cannot understand," he says. A year and a half after relocating to Pornic, a town on the Atlantic, he quit his job to become an oyster farmer.


"I have more of a social life here than I did in New York," says Nils Aucante — Photo: Les Ruchers de Saint Marc via Facebook

According to Jean Viard, one never settles somewhere by chance. For some, they are brought to a place by family. For others, it's love at first sight, a vacation memory that you want to revive and make last. This was the story for Emma de Soumagnat. At the age of 25, having secured a master's degree in ecology, biology and environment, she never would have thought about leaving the capital to one day to settle in (what remains of) the family farm in Limoges, which had been abandoned for 30 years. The farm is nestled in the heart of the aptly named hamlet Soumagnat, and each time she writes her name, she is reminded of her own heritage.

The catalyst for her was the announcement of the first COVID-19 lockdown. "We told ourselves that it would only be for a month, so it didn't matter that there was no water or electricity … we would get through it!" But one month turned into many more, and de Soumagnat did not return to Paris.

"It was as if we had no choice," she says. It was the same kind of love at first sight that Le Cain experienced when he met the oyster farmers.

The destinies of Nils Aucante, Patrice Le Cain and Emma de Soumagnat were far from anticipated. Their reasons for returning to these places, steeped in history and memories, were varied. However, one thing unites them: the desire to find more meaning in their lives, just like Mathieu and Clémence Maisons.

"There is something very profound happening that is in many ways in response to the ecological crisis we are going through. We have been disassociated from the physical, real resources for existence and now we must return to the earth to be able to find them."

"Sometimes you need to stop hesitating," says Mathieu. He grew up on the family farm in Beauce, where he helped his parents harvest potatoes on weekends. After graduating from engineering school, he started his career as a market analyst for a major food company. Five years and hundreds of predictions and analyses later, he still struggled to picture himself doing the same job in the long term. Matthieu met with Clémence, his wife, and discussed his dream project: to start producing homemade chips.

"It brings more meaning to our work," he says. "Today we are going to plant potatoes, and in a few months, we will harvest them. Then, we transform them into chips and sell them. It's very concrete and simple."

Without the help of his wife and parents though, Mathieu Maisons could not have developed his project. He gave his family's 17th-century farm a "new lease on life," widening old walls that were too small to accommodate modern agricultural machinery and to adapt the farm for potato processing.

Gaspard d'Allens, the author of the 2016 book Les Néopaysans (The Neo-Farmers), wrote that "people following these paths to return to their roots challenge our current model of society: urban and overly career-centered. We're going to value manual labor again. It is not so much a return to the land but rather a renewed value for the land, as it helps us reclaim our lives and begin learning to work with living creatures and natural elements. There is something very profound happening that is in many ways in response to the ecological crisis we are going through. We have been disassociated from the physical, real resources for existence and now we must return to the earth to be able to find them, to understand how they grow. These are the little things that our grandparents had, but that we have lost."

When Patrice Le Cain thinks back to his former profession, which consisted of "buying a service as cheaply as possible in order to resell it for as much as possible," he wonders how he was able to last 20 years.


Mathieu Maisons makes homemade potato chips inspired by his grandmother's recipe. — Photo: Belsia via Facebook

Emma de Soumagnat's goal is to learn how to cultivate the land, live according to the rhythm of the seasons and rediscover ancestral knowledge: "We want to create a place where we can find the knowledge that has been lost for generations: cultivating the land on small plots, making bread, kneading it by hand. My grandfather understood it, but for him, it was still something intrinsic."

This is also what Mathieu Maisons was looking to accomplish when he marketed his homemade potato chips: to rediscover the taste of those that his grandmother used to prepare.

According to Jean Viard, this explains the return of "do-it-yourself" professions. For a long time, we searched for anonymity at work, hoping to find personal fulfillment in other spheres — love, leisure, travel. But in recent years, the focus has shifted.

Socialist Jean Viard says, "It used to be that people wanted to do neat and tidy jobs — they went to work in suits and ties. Mothers pushed their daughters to go to the city where there was cleanliness and running water. Today, we are seeing a return of crafts. People want to work with wood, soil, iron and flour. The rise of these trades is happening because people want to show what they have built."

Patrice Le Cain says that "The quest for meaning also involves the rebirth of foundational values such as "courage, hard work, generosity and strength. When the winds blow strong, you have to dare yourself to go to sea. There is always a sense of danger. But, you have to take responsibility and face adversity." The oyster farmer has lost 10 kilos (22 pounds) in six months. But when he thinks back to his office job, sitting under the fluorescent lights, he has no regrets: "I no longer found meaning in what I was doing, I found that it was no longer ethical."

We are seeing a return of crafts. People want to work with wood, soil, iron and flour.

In our ultra-connected lives, our relationship with nature has withered and we feel the need to reconnect with it. Gaspardd'Allens says, "It is also a crisis resulting from our failure to pay attention, our lack of sensitivity to the living world around us. By leaving the city to become a farmer, we discover another way of living in and relating to this world." For Emma de Soumagnat, this reconnection with nature is vital, even carnal: "In Paris, you are in a cocoon. You see the seasons go by, but you don't realize how fragile we are to the elements. Here, our roof is not insulated so we hear the wind, the rain, and we know the elements are there."

Contrary to popular belief, changing one's life and reconnecting with nature does not mean living in isolation. De Soumagnat says they are not looking to be in a vacuum far from others. But she also recognizes that there are shifts in the world that are going to happen, like climatic changes, societal changes, pandemics.

"Things are moving faster and faster," she says. "If one day there is a real problem, we want to be a space for resilience in the village, to be a rock for the people around us."

And the social link often starts at the next door, says Gaspard d'Allens: "Feeding the world was the task given to farmers in the 1950s. Today, it's no longer about feeding the world but about feeding your neighbors [...] You see their faces, their smiles. You see people around you who are happy to have good products. It's a form of making politics local again, the politics of everyday life."

Our relationship with nature has withered and we feel the need to reconnect with it.

For some, their social lives have been more active since leaving the city. While we were talking about bees and sheep, Nils Aucante was interrupted three times by visitors. "I have more of a social life here than I did in New York," he says, amused. So, who said that in the countryside one lives in isolation? Jean Viard says that by leaving the city behind, these newcomers create a strong connection to their network: "We are a society of links, and we sell links. People are looking for a link with their origins, a link with the land through what we do and then a link with the people we sell to. We are building a network-based society. These people coming to nature already have a network-minded culture, which they just bring into these rural spaces."

The neo-farmers prefer to focus on social ties, as well as the meaning they give to their work and to their lives. They will earn less, own less, perhaps work less, but they will be much more socially involved, holding onto interpersonal exchanges. Though, at the end of the day, to each their own.