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
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.”
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.”
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.