February 02, 2017
The cards for the French presidential election were drastically reshuffled after center-right candidate François Fillon found himself embroiled in an embezzlement scandal. Meanwhile, following the decision by current center-left President François Hollande not to stand for a second term, his Socialist party elected an inexperienced and quasi-utopian Benoît Hamon as its candidate.
As a result, on April 23, the run-off that many insiders expected came true: For the first time in the more than half-century history of the Fifth Republic, the top two vote-getters in the first round of the French presidential election belong to neither of the country's traditional Left or Right parties. Newcomer Emmanuel Macron, 39, of the brand new En Marche ! party came in first with 23.7% of the vote, while Marine Le Pen of the National Front party (founded by her father) collected 21.5% of ballots. All the French drama, of course, comes after two of the most shocking election results in memory: the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory. So all eyes now shift to France to see what modern democracy holds in store for us next — and who will "wish la bienvenue" when President Trump comes marching into Paris for the first time ...
To whet the world's appetite, we have imagined two very different scenarios of how it all could look, sound and smell after the French voters have their say in the second round of the French presidential election next month.
October 7, 2017*
They called him the anti-Trump. And indeed, in many respects, he was. Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president in French history, against the oldest American ever to take over the White House. A former Rothschild banker, a young wolf of the finance world, contrasted with a real-estate mogul who got his start in the outer New York borough of Queens and made his money with bricks and mortar. Macron, the polished purveyor of 21st century globalism — a response to Trump's raw nationalistic rhetoric of isolationism.
But the two also had a lot in common. Like Trump, Macron won by positioning himself outside of the political party system and by describing himself as anti-establishment, while being its most accomplished embodiment. Like Trump, he inherited a divided country, beset by an identity crisis and growing inequalities. Like Trump, he saw politics essentially as a game of taking risks and striking deals. And before they met for the first time on the porch of the Elysée palace, both men were very much aware that their poker match was only just beginning.
Of course, Macron had been generous, though always cautious, in his criticism of the man in the White House during his successful campaign. The French and European media had been particularly enchanted when their blue-eyed boy joked that "the best way for Trump to keep buying his Italian suits is to work together with the EU. We can even find one that fits him better!"
Obviously, Trump didn't let the quip stand, replying in a tweet sent at 2.54 a.m. (that's 8:54 a.m. Paris time. Perfect!) "You're right Froggy. From now on, only American suits!"
The whole thing seemed to have been forgotten by the time the American president made his first visit to Paris, on a particularly hot weekend in early October. The two heads of state did their best to appear courteous in front of the cameras, though Trump's body language suggested he was very much enjoying towering over his 5-foot-7-inch French counterpart. Inevitably, the "was it a gaffe or is he a bully?" moment came when Trump mistook Macron's 63-year-old wife for his mother. Answer, by the way: He is a bully.
Trump clearly had hoped for Marine Le Pen to defeat Macron in the second round of the election. But after the results had come in, showing the Front National leader below 45%, he tried to convince himself that he could just as well take advantage of the young Frenchman's lack of experience and vision. He was both right and wrong.
Macron, who was more interested in boosting economic integration than flexing diplomatic muscles, was indeed willing to compromise. He was ready to stand aside on the dismantling of NATO if it was an opportunity to reinforce the European Union. Brussels could finally build a common European defense system to replace NATO, and the EU would double down on economic integration, especially now that Britain was leaving. It would thus open the door, reasoned the young French president, who was acting in concert with the recently reelected Angela Merkel, to rekindling the EU's free-trade talks with the U.S.
Their contempt for one another was only matched by their mutual admiration, from one money man to another
Macron's big idea was that since Trump was so intent on re-industrializing America, the EU — and France in particular — should go the opposite direction and fully embrace the "uberization" of the economy. By canceling the country's 35-hour working week and encouraging freelancing, even while slashing corporate and wealth taxes, Macron had already discarded the French labor movement he'd used to keep Le Pen from power. It was the groundwork necessary to attract investors and tech companies, worried by the U.S. Muslim ban and the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. Meanwhile, the Macron-Merkel "Macrel" couple was also initiating similar free-trade negotiations with China and other Asian countries in the hope of turning Europe into the world's hub for freelance services. A launching pad for the rare winners of globalization, a ticket toward a new kind of underclass for the rest.
Increasingly pragmatic, Trump saw real opportunity, confident that the biggest American corporations would rather repatriate their overseas funds, thanks to his one-off tax holiday, than move to France — especially after the latest terror attack. By the end of the not-so-romantic weekend in Paris, their contempt for one another was only matched by their mutual admiration, from one money man to another. The leaders of U.S. and France, and more widely Europe, were now fully aware that they no longer shared the same interests and goals. All seemed willing to each go their own way. This new reality of transatlantic relations was confirmed days later, after Trump's awkward and shortened visit to Berlin where, among other things, he complained about the food and the mass street protests. History notes that he wouldn't return to either of these capitals until the middle of his second term, after both Macron and Merkel had been defeated.
*True Fiction: A narrative experiment for an era of fake news and hard-to-believe reality. (This piece was published on Feb. 2, 2017)
Read part II of this series: When President Trump Meets President Le Pen.
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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.
October 27, 2021
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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