Economy

A Patriotic Plea To French Entrepreneurs Abroad

After the attacks in Paris, Marc Simoncini, the founder of Meetic, asked French entrepreneurs living abroad, sometimes for fiscal reasons, to come back to France.

Meetic founder Marc Simoncini (center)
Meetic founder Marc Simoncini (center)
Les Echos

PARIS â€" A cri du coeur (cry from the heart): These are the words used by Marc Simoncini to describe his call to all French entrepreneurs outside of France â€" to come back home.

The founder of the dating website Meetic, online optical retailer Sensee and the investment fund Jaïna caused something of a stir in the French community of digital entrepreneurs by calling on his expat compatriots to come back to France to pay their taxes.

The Nov. 15 message was published on social networks, two days after the attacks in Paris that left at least 129 dead. Simoncini addressed his “dear entrepreneur friends,” including “many of whom have left France, sometimes for personal, often fiscal reasons.”

The 52-year-old multi-millionaire wrote: “Our country gave you the chance to succeed in life and you are part of the few percent of humanity who have so much more than what is necessary,” the founder of Meetic wrote. “So, my friends, I implore you, come back to France, come back to start things, (…) come back, pay your taxes, you’ll see, it’s not that hard! Come back, because if we don’t save our nation, you too may soon lose everything.”

Mixed message

Many of his social-media followers welcomed his initiative, but many, mostly entrepreneurs, were critical.

Marc Simoncini lance un appel aux entrepreneurs exilés à revenir en France, bonne idée. https://t.co/rtHxRckxLc

â€" Nicolas Clairembault (@nclairembault) November 15, 2015

On Twitter, Julien Barbier, the cofounder of While42, responded by arguing that entrepreneurs also take part in France’s influence from abroad:

@labilbe @marcsimoncini En deux ans à San Francisco, via #while42, j’ai aidé des centaines d’informaticiens, entrepreneurs et étudiants FR

â€" Julien Barbier (@julienbarbier42) November 15, 2015

“In two years in San Francisco, via #while42, I have helped hundreds of French computer engineers, entrepreneurs and students.”

@labilbe @marcsimoncini Je suis revenu en France souvent, j’y ai partagé ce que j’avais appris, j’y ai donné des cours, des confs...

â€" Julien Barbier (@julienbarbier42) November 15, 2015

“I’ve returned to France often, I shared what I learned, gave classes, lectures …”

As for the entrepreneur Pierre Vannier, he described Marc Simoncini’s post as “pathetic” and called it “exploitation.”

In the same way, Simoncini's Facebook post sparked a debate between those who defend the French model and those who say avoiding expatriation is impossible. The message was shared more than 900 times and liked by some 3,000 people.

Some French expats felt singled out by the post, not-so-subtly accused of dodging France's famously high tax rates. “We lived the tragic events of these past few days with a force that I imagine was equal to yours,” wrote Pascal Royer, a Frenchmen who left for the U.S. in 2013. “The presence of French people abroad in an incredible chance for our country. We represent a culture that the world loves, we develop businesses for French companies and products.”

A common manifesto

In an interview with the business weekly Challenges, Simoncini stood by his message, saying he doesn’t regret “arguing with a few entrepreneur friends,” even if they felt he was trying to use the attacks to make them feel guilty about leaving, often because of France's famously high tax rates.

“Today, we’re at war. And what's most important in war is money,” Simoncini added. “We must imperatively unite to pay taxes, bring in the necessary money, but also weigh in politically, be heard, impose a better allocation of budgetary resources. At some point, you must reconcile yourself between the money you have and the country you want to live in.”

The entrepreneur says he plans on launching a manifesto, “calling on all the good souls to contribute, in one way or another” to the good of France.

“I don’t care if I seem overly patriotic," he says. "We’re backed into a corner, and for those who have money and talent, the time to help is now.”

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Economy

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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