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© zcopley/Flickr

Text by Adam MITCHELL

Latest update : 2013-04-16

Bitcoin, the virtual currency whose value has surged along with fears for euro bank balances, may be a little volatile for typical French tastes. But entrepreneurs in the country are working hard to unlock the opportunities it heralds.

France’s strong culture of centralisation and safety-first investing makes Bitcoin mania an unlikely prospect in the country, especially given the virtual currency’s recent volatility, a Paris-based investment manager said Monday. But he, and the CEO of a company behind a Bitcoin exchange, also showed how French entrepreneurs have been exploring the opportunities it is creating.

The price of Bitcoin has risen in value recently after capital controls and bank losses in Cyprus heightened savers’ fears that their money isn’t safe. Bitcoin surged to a high of $266, or €203, on Wednesday. Gravity reclaimed it almost as rapidly, but on Monday it was trading at around $100, or €76, per “coin”, still very high by its historical standards.

The digital currency is run by a peer-to-peer network in which aficionados can “mine” new units by solving complex problems with their computers. Its supply is meant to be limited, rather like gold. Unlike for state currencies, like the US dollar, there is no central bank behind Bitcoin.

The electronic currency, which can change hands through computers or smartphones, can be used to buy and sell a growing range of items -- from computer equipment sold online to a beer in a New York bar that has recently started accepting it.

The “general ambiance” in France is one in which investors seek to protect themselves from risk, French investment banker Nicolas Debock told FRANCE 24. Bitcoin’s recent price rollercoaster is likely to run counter to that preference, he said.

France’s reputation for thrift and conservative investments is borne out by statistics. According to a recent Reuters report, France has one of the highest household savings rates in Europe, currently running at nearly 16 percent.

While France is accustomed to centralisation, Bitcoin is “decentralised by definition,” said Debock.

That makes it “rather the opposite of the values that are dear to the French,” he said, adding that his countrymen often struggle to believe that “something that’s not planned and organised by a central organism can work.”

But even if Bitcoin’s decentralized nature and potential for volatility mean it’s unlikely to join gold and property in the portfolios of conservative French investors, some companies in the country are determined not to miss the opportunities it may herald.

France is home to some leading Bitcoin actors of its own, such as Paymium, whose services include Bitcoin Central, a Bitcoin exchange which attracted attention last year for partnering with the Paris-based payment services provider Aqoba.

Debock, the Paris-based investment manager, said companies that develop ways of using Bitcoins may turn out to be good investments as they rise to challenge payment companies like Visa, Mastercard or Paypal. His company, which he requested remain anonymous, has yet to invest but could be interested in payment companies involving Bitcoin, he said.

Paymium’s CEO, Gonzague Grandval, on Monday told FRANCE 24 that Bitcoin is in the process of finding its market value. That process will likely take a while longer, he said.

Bitcoin’s supporters praise the anonymity it can confer on its users. This reputation sets it up as a potential alternative to the kind of secret Swiss bank account that has been at the centre of the kind of major political scandal that has shaken the French government in recent weeks.

But while the anonymity Bitcoin can confer “isn’t entirely a myth”, Grandval said that, on exchanges like Paymium, “nothing is anonymous.” Customers buying Bitcoins on the exchange must transfer money from their own bank accounts, he said.

Above all, Bitcoin is still a new phenomenon, with an as yet uncertain future, he added.

“It’s completely virgin terrain,” he said.

Date created : 2013-04-15

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