- 6 mars 2014
By night, the subterranean labyrinth from which the City of Light was quarried is the playground of a secretive fraternity of cataphiles, named after the catacombs that hold the bones of its dead.
This article was taken from the April 2014 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
After a hard day’s work, Xavier Niel — the man who has liberated France’s internet and mobile-phone markets and is one of its most active tech angels — likes nothing better than to find a dark corner of a poorly lit street and disappear down a manhole. The mythic Paris he surveys from the top-floor headquarters of his company — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Coeur — has almost a perfect mirror image underground, carved out of the pale yellow limestone beneath the cobbled streets.
By night, the subterranean labyrinth from which the City of Light was quarried is the playground of a secretive fraternity of cataphiles, named after the catacombs that hold the bones of its dead. Niel has been disappearing into this fourth dimension since he was a teenage programmer to party under the Parthenon or watch films in secret cavern cinemas. And it’s from this not-strictly-legal demi-monde that Niel draws his brand of egalitarian capitalism. It’s also one of the few places where France’s sixth-richest man can escape his own mobile network. « I get my energy down there, » says Niel, 46. « I go underground once or twice a week. Down there I feel normal again. I’m with people who’ve been my friends for ever. It’s the real, crazily mixed France I grew up in. It’s my reference. »
Niel is from les banlieues, the working-class suburbs of Paris. People from this kind of background don’t normally become captains of French industry. « France has the least social mobility of any developed country, » he claims. « The social elevator no longer works. It’s broken. » He is convinced that technology and entrepreneurial culture can help remedy this, and that it’s up to people like him to make sure it does.