Terror in Europe

Charlie Hebdo Attacks Haven’t Quieted French Comedians

Since the Jan. 7, 2015 killings, many humorists have been struggling to tackle the question of Islamic terrorism, security and freedom of speech. Most are undeterred.

French comedian Fabrice Eboue on stage in Paris
French comedian Fabrice Eboue on stage in Paris
Sandrine Blanchard

PARIS â€" "If you can die for a drawing, then you can die for a stand-up sketch."

Such is the reasoning of French humorist Stéphane Guillon, who readily admits that there's a "before and after" to last year's Charlie Hebdo attacks in terms of the way he constructs his jokes. "When I wrote a sketch this summer on the Prophet Muhammad for my new show, I wondered for the first time how far I could go," he says.

Guillon chose to "avoid falling into the trap of frontal attacks," and to talk about all religions. "ISIS has nothing to do with religion. My targets are those lunatics."

Since the Jan. 7, 2015 attacks, many comedians have been asking themselves how they should approach these tragic events while remaining faithful to these words by Cabu, the best-known of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: "There's no limit to humor, which serves freedom of expression, because when humor stops, the gap gets filled by censorship and self-censorship."

So how do we keep on mocking, caricaturing? How do we still laugh after such a tragedy? "Even among humorists, everyone wasn't Charlie," says Frédérick Sigrist, a popular young comedian. "There are those who will fight for the somewhat Gallic secularism, anticlericalism, and those who will keep on joking about smartphones, public transport or how short Nicolas Sarkozy is." For this humorist with a Guadeloupean background, who "revisits the news" every week at the Parisian Point-Virgule theater and performs on the radio network France Inter, last January's events reminded humorists that it's pointless to try to keep the whole audience happy.

"Charlie"s first quality is to ask more questions," Sigrist says. "We need to be provocative, because in France we're dying from what we're not saying. I grew up in a housing project in Nancy in eastern France, my mother still lives there. I saw the neighborhood change, the convenience stores disappear, more and more women wearing veils. If we talk about this, we're accused of playing into the hands of the far-right National Front party, but that's forgetting that the largest party in France is abstention, which is caused by disgust with politics." No longer will he "take precautions' with the taboo of religion, but neither with the Western faith in capitalism.

Some French humorists, such as Jérémy Ferrari or Yassine Belattar, didn't wait for the attacks to talk about radical Islam, with sometimes chilling premonitions. In November 2014, Elie Semoun played a brainless young man contacting Jihad.com after killing "three people on Call of Duty" and claiming to be ready to set off for Syria, "only if there are no mosquitoes."

In late 2014, Régis Mailhot talked on the television network Paris Première about "working as a junior jihadist for ISIS," which involved "recruitment via Skype, a job, a passion, you'll have a blast." The French comedian, who works for the radio network RTL and at the Nouvelle Seine theater, hasn't changed his act.

"Religious evasion, whatever it is, is a topic I've been taking on for a long time," he says. I don't do more of it today, but I keep on doing it, because we need to talk about it urgently." He doesn't give into fear or doesn't consider himself courageous. "Thinking you're a target would be giving yourself far too much importance."

Stéphane Guillon admits that "the more the prohibitions, the more interesting and exhilarating it is to provoke, flirt with the mark."

Audiences, notes comedien, writer and director Fabrice Eboué, have never been larger. "There's a fundamental desire to laugh, a need to evacuate the fears and the anxiety," he says. "The audience wants audacious artists."

The comedienne known as Océanerosemarie vigorously defends “living in harmony," and rewrote entire sections of her show after last January's attacks. "These events "radicalized" me and pushed me to reassert my positions further" to fight racism and stigmatization. There is "a tension that didn't exist before, a need to laugh, but also to think, to see things in a different way."

Has the role played by the "clowns" of society become more important than it used to be? After having met with success these past few years with his show Hallelujah bordel! (Hallelujah goddammit!), which denounced the excesses of monotheistic religions, Jérémy Ferrari started touring this week with his new one-man show called Vends 2 pièces à Beyrouth (Two-room apartment for sale in Beirut). The main theme? War.

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

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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