When the Paris Blockchain Week organizers were hatching plans to hold this year’s event at the Carrousel Du Louvre, crypto was in a very different place.
“To be honest with you, we made the decision before the bear market,” said co-founder and president Michael Amar in an interview with The Block. “It was very complicated because it wasn’t built for conferences … it’s pretty uncommon to go to a crypto conference in such a setting.”
Although the crypto sector has soured significantly since then, the conference still buzzed with the energy of a bull market as attendees marched past web3 gaming simulators, signs asking passersby to tell all about their “Cex life” and even dwarfs dressed in clown outfits (for some reason not clear to The Block) to attend PBW’s litany of panels and keynotes.
While most of the event went off without a hitch — a considerable improvement from last year, when a tarpaulin almost fell on top of Binance’s Changpeng Zhao — it was not without its complications.
This time, the city itself brought the brouhaha. Trash bags and burned rubble littered the city of romance, as tens of thousands of protestors swarmed the streets (not, thankfully, to protest the conference or crypto more generally.)
Just as the bear market was unexpected, the conference organizers were likely not betting on holding proceedings amid nationwide protests against legislation to raise the retirement age.
As its penultimate day closed, the demonstrations were even close to bumping into the usually cloistered crypto crew as protestors marched past the Louvre.
Those demonstrations may have postponed the king of England’s trip to France, but they didn’t stop corporations from Google, Amazon and Reddit showing their faces.
It’s a different picture from 2019, when only 1,500 people attended the event, recalled market maker Woorton CEO and PBW co-founder Charlie Meraud. In its early days, he straddled both his leadership role at the market maker and organized the event before it hired a wider team as it grew.
“I was quoting markets in the day, and I was literally chasing speakers during the night,” he laughed.
Although blockchain has lost some of its buzz to AI, the conference has now swelled to 8,500 attendees.
The birth of French crypto
PBW has grown alongside the French ecosystem, the roots of which can be partly traced back to the 2014 founding of La Maison du Bitcoin by serial entrepreneur Eric Larchevêque and Thomas France, said crypto wallet giant Ledger CEO Pascal Gauthier. Larchevêque and France went onto found Ledger.
“Eric was like ‘I’m going to create a hub for crypto,’ which basically had no business model. It was like a WeWork for crypto,” said Gauthier. “But very quickly it became a physical address where you could actually go and buy bitcoin with cash and credit card and it was running meetups and hackathons too.”
La Maison du Bitcoin later evolved into the crypto investment platform Coinhouse in early 2018. A hackathon that took place at the venue later resulted in the creation of Ledger in 2015.
Today, many of France’s homegrown brands can be found discussing the benefits of blockchain at PBW. Insurance company AXA, football club PSG and fashion houses such as LVMH, Kering and Givenchy rubbed shoulders with the usual crypto conference crop of Animoca Brands Chairman Yat Siu, Tim Draper and Circle’s Jeremy Allaire.
Corporates, culture and crypto
Key crypto players in the French capital that The Block spoke to during the conference say that this collusion of corporations, culture and crypto is unique to France’s ecosystem. Its sovereign wealth fund Bpifrance buttresses many of the interactions, claims PBW’s Amar.
Last year, The Block spoke to Bpifrance's crypto lead Ivan De Lastours who said that the French ecosystem was able to lean on its strong reputation in the creative industries from gaming to film to fashion.
But that wasn’t always the case, recalls Pierre Nicolas Hurstel, co-founder and CEO of Arianee, a firm that provides infrastructure for luxury brands looking to delve into web3.
He says that the startup only targeted the luxury sector as it recognized that web3 could solve some of the pain points of scarcity, ownership and transferability that the industry was experiencing.
Its flagship Digital Passport NFT is minted on its eponymous protocol and linked to a luxury good so that holders can not only validate its authenticity but also trace the product’s life cycle including repairs, resells and ownership transfers.
Luxury Swiss watch brand Vacheron Constantin was Arianee’s first target and, thanks to some risk-taking decision-makers at the firm, it trialed the passport in 2019.
“People inside the company fought to make it work,” he said, describing his first meetings with the wallet brand. It took until the end of 2021 for Vacheron Constantin to roll it out product-wide.
That’s just one example of what Ledger’s Gauthier terms as a “very organic” and two-sided connection between France’s luxury sector and crypto.
Crypto firms have also cozied up to the luxury sector during events such as last month’s NFT Paris and at startup campus Station F’s incubator programs, run by the likes of LVMH and L’Oréal.
Despite the glitz, it hasn’t been all luxury NFT drops and Punks in the Pompidou for the French ecosystem over the past year.
Its OG player Coinhouse was caught up in the crypto cataclysm of last year. In November, it suspended its yield products, for which both FTX and crypto lender Genesis had acted as counterparties, per a Les Echoes report.
CEO Nicolas Louvet told The Block via email that 92% of customers have now been reimbursed fully with an additional 7% choosing to keep a percentage of the funds locked to receive when and if the counterparties become liquid again.
The firm, which was the first crypto startup to ever register with the country’s regulatory authorities, was also listed as one of Genesis’ creditors in its bankruptcy filing, with a claim of close to $15 million.
That contagion to the French ecosystem momentarily triggered a regulatory wobble, with tougher legislation initially proposed in response. A milder set of licensing rules for crypto firms passed last month, however.
There are also questions left to be answered on the results of headline-grabbing statements made by Crypto.com and Binance last year, which put forward millions in investment to the French ecosystem.
PBW’s Amar said that he isn’t sure what’s going on with those arrangements, admitting that there was less presence from exchanges this year than before.
A Binance spokesperson told The Block that France continues to be the center of the exchange's activities in Europe. Binance continues to roll out the €100 million investment it announced last year, creating 150 jobs in the country and opening an office in Paris, the spokesperson continued.
Crypto.com did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
More recently the ecosystem had to deal with USDC de-pegging as Silicon Valley Bank collapsed.
“Just like with banks we’re now realizing that things we thought couldn’t collapse can,” said market maker Flowdesk’s Guilhem Chaumont. The firm offers crypto market making as a service for token issuers.
A Euro stablecoin?
As fashion and art solidify their blockchain bonds with the French capital, infrastructure is playing catch up.
The share of Ethereum fiat stablecoin supply is close to 100% in USD stablecoins, per The Block Research.
“We were expecting some strong inflow on the Euro side, but it hasn’t been a huge shift. It would have been a good opportunity for a Euro stablecoin to shine,” said Chaumont.
One of the most widely used euro stablecoins, Angle protocol's AgEUR, was also recently impacted by the Euler hack, leading it to depeg.
Barring another bank run, if Circle manages to successfully register with the country’s regulators, things could change — as it would be able to “onshore” its euro-backed stablecoin EUROC.
Still, French crypto startups like Flowdesk and Ledger claim that despite the sector's travails, things are going well.
“We had our best month in March,” said Chaumont. “We onboarded eight or nine token issuers and we’re at an all-time high in revenues and volume.”
In November, when FTX collapsed, Ledger recorded its highest-ever revenue, claimed Gauthier previously. And the luxury appetite for web3 shows no signs of going away either, said Hurstel.
Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron is still struggling to quell the fire of his country’s protestors. For now, the country’s burning desire to become Europe’s crypto hub also looks difficult to extinguish.
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