Vive la révolution

With high unemployment, low morale, damaging political scandals and threatened cutbacks to services and welfare, France has been losing its joie de vivre. But revolution is in the air. Here are 10 trailblazers who are leading the way

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 01:00

Xavier Niel
France’s Steve Jobs?
Xavier Niel (45), the one-time sex-shop investor turned telecoms and newspaper mogul from the working-class Parisian suburb of Créteil, breaks the billionaire mould.

Some call him “the Steve Jobs of France”. Others prefer “peep-show man”.

Niel left school after second level, began his entrepreneurial career while still a teenager and, with a net worth of some €5 billion today, cuts a not-so-dashing figure in crumpled, open-neck shirts, jeans and long, slicked-back black hair.

Frustrated by a shortage of software developers (more than 70 per cent of French tech firms have recruitment problems), the co-owner of Le Monde newspaper and founder of Free, which provides cheap internet to millions of French homes, is spending €70 million on setting up a software development school himself.

It is to be a school with a difference. There will be no fees at “42” – the establishment’s name, the number being The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”. Applicants need no formal qualifications, the course will lead to no state-recognised degree, and the school, under construction in central Paris, will be open day and night. And there is no set curriculum. “Classes? What classes?” says its website. “At 42, there are no lectures but projects from which you will learn a lot, and fast.”

Niel hopes 42 will attract gifted students from poorer areas who have fallen through the cracks of what he regards as a rigid and elitist education system.

He admits to having done “stupid things”, and is a believer in second chances. In 2004 he was briefly jailed, received a two-year suspended sentence and was fined €250,000 for embezzling about €200,000 from peep shows in sex shops he co-owned and has since sold.

“Experience has shown us that young people who are complete academic failures can turn out to be extraordinary computer specialists,” says Niel. “The French education system is not working.”

He has certainly inspired hope. For the 1,000 places on the three-year course that starts this autumn, there were 50,000 applications. “We are not just trying to change business,” Niel says. “We are trying to change the mentality in France.”

Faïza Guène
The Bridget Jones of the banlieues
Perhaps it was when grandmothers living in French towns run by the far-right National Front party approached French-Algerian novelist and film-maker Faïza Guène and confessed to her: “I didn’t really understand all the slang, but I loved your book.” Or when young “book virgins” from the tower blocks of her own working-class Paris suburb of Pantin, some in low-slung jeans and baseball caps, told her: “I read a book from start to finish for the first time, thanks to you.”

At some unspecified point since she published her first novel aged 19, Guène, now 28 and celebrated as the “Françoise Sagan of the high rises” and the “Bridget Jones of the banlieues”, has become recognised not only as a literary success but as a cohesive, liberating force and role model in France’s multicultural society.

Guène has given a literary voice to second- and third-generation children of north-African descent, and in the process prompted her readers to see themselves, and the mixed society in which they live, in a radically different, more informed way.

Her first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Demain (Just Like Tomorrow), a coming of age tale peppered with verlan – Arabic-influenced slang that places French words back to front – sold more than 360,000 copies in France and was distributed in 27 countries. She has written two more, and a fourth is on the way.

“I was very surprised to realise that some people think we don’t even love each other in these places, you know,” she says. “They thought it’s just like in a war movie, always fighting and violence. It’s just an ordinary life but with some money problems and some social problems. And that’s all.” She still lives near her childhood home, remains apart from the Paris literati, and has turned down requests from the authorities to become a spokeswoman for racial equality, saying she wants only to pursue her art. “She has changed her life and the lives of those around her through the power of telling stories, making films and writing books,” says Sarah Ardizzone, who has translated Guène’s books. “She is changing young people’s perceptions of what they might be able to achieve in their future. And this is a great force for uniting different aspects of French society.”

Edwy Plenel
Scoop maestro
Five years ago Le Monde’s former editor Edwy Plenel (60) co-founded webzine Mediapart, which has been revolutionising investigative journalism and web publishing in France. The one-time Trotskyite with the Tom Selleck moustache is one of the most recognised people in the country – “even bigger than Beyoncé”, claimed Canal Plus – and together with Mediapart co-founder Laurent Mauduit has shown that a news website that accepts no ads and makes users pay can be financially viable.

In a country where journalists often treat politicians with kid-gloved deference, and in the face of widespread scepticism from established media outlets, Nantes-born Plenel’s small, gutsy website has exposed some of the country’s biggest corruption scandals, not least the recent dethroning of budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac over allegations he used a Swiss bank account to evade tax.

At Le Monde, Plenel broke some of its biggest stories, including the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and the framing of three Irish people in Vincennes.

As president of Mediapart, he oversaw the exposé that led to the investigation of former president Nicolas Sarkozy for allegedly taking financial advantage of L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. The site also revealed the intervention of IMF chief Christine Lagarde in a state legal settlement with businessman Bernard Tapie.

Four years after its business model was dismissed by many as unworkable, the site, which employs 46 staff, 30 of them journalists, made a profit of some €700,000 in 2012. Subscriptions, at €9 per month, have risen steadily to about 75,000 (including 10,000 since the resignation of Cahuzac in March). As newspapers struggle for survival against free online sites, Plenel argues that quality journalism, needed now more than ever, can make money. “In the age of the digital revolution we have to prove the value of information to the public.”

Anne Sophie Pic
Cuisine custodian
Who knew French cuisine needed saving? The country’s top chefs, apparently. Alarmed by a study indicating a third of France’s 150,000 eateries admit to regular use of pre-prepared industrial products, Valence-born Anne Sophie Pic (44), who has three Michelin stars pinned to her apron and was named the world’s best female chef in 2011, has joined a campaign to separate the reheaters from the slicers and dicers.

Pic is a member of the the Collège Culinaire de France, which has introduced a new label, Restaurant de Qualité. It will be awarded to artisanal chefs who cook everything from scratch, and who agree to unannounced inspections to confirm they really are deboning and flambéeing instead of microwaving the contents of plastic bags.

Food delivery services posing as restaurants are anathema to Pic, who grew up surrounded by busy chefs transforming raw ingredients into works of art. Her grandfather, known for his crayfish gratin, and father ran the family’s Michelin-starred Maison Pic in the Rhône-Alps region, which Anne Sophie operates today in addition to two others, in Lausanne and Paris. “Creation is by far my favourite part of what I do,” she says.

The new quality seal, presented in collaboration with kitchen greats such as Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, came just before the French parliament approved a measure to have restaurant menus specify as fait maison or “made on site” those dishes that have not been bought in readymade. The battle is on to preserve a great French tradition which, without the likes of Pic, risks flopping like a microwaved frite.

Louis Gallois
Competitiveness tzar
While the Americans have Silicon Valley, France has had “Death Valley”, says Louis Gallois (69), former head of Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space company and the man the Hollande government entrusted to come up with a plan to reboot the economy.

Known as France’s competitiveness tzar – and the man who should be prime minister, according to Jean Pierre Raffarin, former prime minister under Jacques Chirac – Gallois wants his country to learn from its mistakes. French tech history is littered with missed opportunities to turn inventions into cash. The world’s first microcomputer, the Micral, was built in 1973 by Frenchman François Gernelle, but France stood back while IBM and Apple created a massive industry around it. Frenchman François Mizzi filed patents for touchscreen technology as far back as the 1980s, but “le iPad” never materialised. For the Montauban-born Gallois, whose title is General Commissioner for Investment, the EU’s biggest producer of graduates in technology, maths and science must get out of the “Death Valley between what’s developed in a lab and its future as a successful product or company”.

Last year he produced a report for president François Hollande that resulted in some €15 billion being cut from payroll taxes, aimed at encouraging companies to recruit staff. Now his focus is on technology, and on finding ways to profit more from French inventions. With this in mind the government has launched a public consultation on “Brand France”, a state-commissioned report on how best to promote and profit from all things French. Gallois is also encouraging French firms to track down corporations around the world that are using patented French technology but not paying for it.

Christiane Taubira
Political trailblazer
Her impassioned, eloquent parliamentary address in favour of gay marriage in May prompted a standing ovation in the national assembly for French minister for justice Christiane Taubira, and drew comparisons with historic speeches by her parliamentary predecessors Simone Veil and Robert Badinter.

Even her political opponents were moved to public claims of admiration for the French Guiana-born 61-year-old, who steered through parliament the country’s new law allowing marriage and adoption by gay couples. “I have respect for her as a fighter,” said opposition UMP deputy Jean-Frédéric Poisson. His colleague Philippe Gosselin, a staunch opponent of gay marriage, conceded: “With her, the debate is always lively . . . she looks straight at the opposition, she confronts adversity.”

Born in Cayenne, Taubira was raised by a single mother who worked as a nurse’s aide. She studied economics in Paris and was elected to the national assembly in 1993 representing Guiana, where she had founded her own party, Walwari. She served five years as an MEP, and in 2002 was the first person from the French Caribbean, and the first black woman, to become a presidential candidate in France.

In 2001, she was the main author of a French law passed (and named after her) recognising slavery as a crime against humanity.

On the success of the gay marriage Bill, she told parliament the reform recognised that many children were already living with same-sex parents and deserved the same protections afforded to everyone. “These are children that scrape their knees, eat too much sweets, don’t like broccoli, drive you crazy . . . we protect them.”

Daft Punk
Electronic darlings
They are the most famous unidentified musicians in the world, yet they must be France’s biggest brand: two shy Parisian schoolfriends who started out making techno music in their bedrooms and who, despite huge acclaim, prefer to remain under cover of the robot helmets of their alter egos. Thomas Bangalter (38) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (39) may not have shown their faces for a photo shoot since 1995 but their glossy disco electronic beat has won over dance crowds across the world. Their recently released fourth album, Random Access Memories, was one of the most anticipated music events in years. French pop music, once the butt of jokes, has been disco-danced into a hipper present. Who’s laughing now?
See French Rock Renaissance: page 18

Margaux Gandelon
Purrveyor of calm
As the economic crisis pushes French panic levels ever higher, this 26-year-old Parisian cat-lover has controversial plans to offer an alternative stress therapy. France’s first “cat cafe” is to open in the Marais district of Paris in the autumn. The concept, based on Japan’s more than 300 Neko cafes, involves allowing customers to play with and pet a friendly feline while sipping a coffee or eating lunch.

“It will be a calm space, a friendly place,” explains Gandelon, who raised the money for the project through crowd-funding and from individual investors. She has yet to confirm the location, but insists it will be a space of “freedom and happiness” for cats and clients, with up to a dozen rescued furry moggies enjoying better treatment than in their previous lives at animal shelters.

The therapeutic effects of playing with and stroking a pet are well established, says Toulouse-based vet Jean Yves Gauchet. “Purring therapy”, as he calls it, has a calming effect on the brain, and acts “like a medication with no side-effects”. When the body struggles with painful situations such as stress, insomnia and anxiety, a cat’s purring increases the production of the “happy hormone” serotonin, he says.

Animal rights groups, however, are more concerned about the cats’ stress levels. The Bardot Foundation in Paris has argued the project will reduce them to “teddy bear” status. “I say to those people,‘Come and see my cafe when it opens’,” says Gandelon. “Clients will not be allowed to wake up a sleeping cat, and they cannot pick up a cat that doesn’t want to be picked up. I have the utmost respect for animals.”

Yaya Sanogo
The next Thierry Henry?
Call it karma if you will, but ever since Thierry Henry stuck out his left hand to juggle the ball and manhandle Ireland out of the 2010 World Cup, French football fans have been having a rum time of it. Henry and his team mates returned from the finals in South Africa in disgrace, having failed to win a match, fallen out with their coach, boycotted a training session and endured a dressing down over their behaviour from the sports minister. An improved performance was delivered at last year’s Euro finals, but France still exited early – and quietly – after a 2-0 defeat to Spain.

If Les Bleus are to see a return to the halcyon days of 1998, when over a million people celebrated on the Champs Élysées after France won the World Cup, their long-suffering supporters will need a new generation of heroes. Step forward Yaya Sanogo. You may not yet have heard of this gangly 20-year-old, but he has certainly caught the eye of Arsenal’s astute French manager Arsene Wenger, who specialises in signing little-known footballers from his home country and turning them into international superstars.

The Massy-born striker – who scored 10 goals in just 13 matches for second division side Auxerre last season and went on to impress for France at the under-20 World Cup in Turkey this month – is Wenger’s latest French import. He follows some illustrious predecessors, not least among them one Thierry Henry.

Bérénice Bejo
Cultural ambassador
She charmed the world as Peppy Miller in the black-and-white 2011 silent film The Artist. More recently it was a speaking role that won her more hearts: by lobbying the European Parliament to retain the “cultural exception” that protects French film-makers from Hollywood domination, the French-
Argentinian actor
Bérénice Bejo is regarded as the ideal ambassador for the industry. France has since managed to keep the audiovisual issue excluded from transatlantic trade talks.

The Buenos Aires-born 37-year-old, whose family moved to France when she was three, told MEPs that without l’exception culturelle, The Artist, in which she starred opposite Jean Dujardin (who won an Oscar for his efforts), would never have been made.

The exception was introduced by the French during trade talks in 1993 in a bid to treat culture differently from commercial products, and has been guarded preciously since.

Bejo, who won this year’s Cannes Best Actress award for her role in Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, told MEPs: “This is not against Americans – we need all cultures.”

Hollywood heavyweights have also supported the deal. This year’s Cannes jury president Steven Spielberg called the tradition “the best way to support diversity in filmmaking”, and then proceeded to announce a list of prizes for films hailing from France, the US, Japan, China, Mexico, and Iran.

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