PARIS â€" Colonel Eric de Lapresle had never seen anything like it.
Since this month's Paris and Saint-Denis terrorist attacks, the French Armed Forces recruitment services have received some 1,500 requests for information per day. That's three times more than before Nov. 13, says de Lapresle, the head of marketing and communication for French military recruitment.
â€œThis is huge," he says. "We have seen a mass influx of applications.â€
There was already a recruitment bump in January, after the previous Paris terror attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket. Through 2014, an average of between 100 to 150 young people were coming in daily for information about signing up, which rose to 400 after the first round of attacks in January.
Among the thousands inquiring all across France were several young men who showed up on a rainy afternoon last week at the Information and Armed Forces Recruitment Center in Vincennes, a mid-sized city east of the capital. For Eliot, an 18-year-old bartender, the scenes of slaughter of innocent victims in Paris was a clear message. â€œWhen I saw what happened on Friday, I told myself that this was unacceptable," he says in a voice cold with rage. "We must react and destroy the Islamic State.â€
The young man cites the motto of the French Republic: â€œLiberty, Equality, Fraternity â€" these three words are threatened. Everything is threatened," says Eliot. "The Islamists want to destroy us. But they will not succeed. Our army is powerful, they are small.â€
French ary recruitment ad â€" Source: Recrutement armée de Terre
Cyprien, a freshman mathematics and computer science major at a Parisian university, said he went back and re-read the 1789 Declaration of Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, "I agree with everything, point by point. All men should be free and have equal rights," he says. "Itâ€™s not normal that people feel vulnerable.â€
Though foreign-bred terrorism is a threat to the French Republic, Cyprien says: â€œThe real dangers come from French citizens, not from terrorists.â€ He fears a shift to the extreme right in France as a reaction to the attacks. â€œThat's the biggest risk for the Republic.â€
Cyprien had already dreamed of becoming a Navy fighter pilot, though he knows that poor eyesight might prevent that. But whatever the assignment, he says he wants "to protect people." He ends up revealing that his 15-year-old sister was at the rock concert at the Bataclan theater where 89 people were killed. "Sheâ€™s alive, everythingâ€™s fine," he says. "But it has strengthened my will.â€
Colonel de Lapresle is pleased to see all these youngsters showing up. â€œIt's the only good news right now," he sighs in his office decorated with military memorabilia. He notes that the candidates could have been at the Bataclan or one of the bars or restaurants targeted. "It is this same youth that is coming to us today, with great generosity.â€
Colonel Bruno Bert, who runs recruitment in the region of Ile-de-France, where Paris and Vincennes are located, echoes the sentiment. â€œServing is the main motivation, it comes before the idea of a career," Bert says. "Many people were genuinely affected by what happened.â€
â€œWe have to defend ouselvesâ€
Showing up at the recruitment center in Vincennes to be enlisted is no guarantee of making it into the military. â€œNot everyone can be a soldier," Bert warns. The process of recruitment lasts four months, during which candidates must pass a range of tests: physical, cognitive, psychological.
"Our selection system is very efficient," de Lapresle adds. "We have time to evaluate the real intentions of the candidates and if one of them is unbalanced, we should be able to notice it."
Others, even with the best intentions, wind up dropping out. Of the 160,000 initial contacts that the army predicts for 2015 (compared to 120,000 in 2014), only 35,000 are likely to be accepted. However, the selection requirements do not get tougher with the uptick in sign-ups: If applications increase, more positions will be opened. There were 10,000 in 2014, and will be 15,000 by the end of this year.
For Thierry, 23, who came to sign up in Vincennes, there is an extra motivation. On the night of the attack, he was working as a security guard at the Stade de France. He was about to leave when he heard the first explosions of what turned out to be two suicide bombers. He and his boss rushed to the scene. "When we got there, the remains of the suicide bombers were everywhere: bowels, ribs and a head that was lying in the corner. I was shaking."
After doing his best to manage his own stress, and maintain order around the stadium, he arrived back home at 1 a.m. "I collapsed. But already, my decision was made: â€œThatâ€™s it, I am joining the armyâ€,â€ he told himself.
He had thought in the past that a military career might beat being a local security guard. "But I wasn't ready, neither physically nor mentally.â€ he recalled. â€œToday Iâ€™m still not in shape physically, but what happened that night made me ready mentally.â€
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 but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
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.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
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".
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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