French regulators, notoriously slow in their pursuit of economic crimes, are announcing their arrival as global cops.
The country’s anti-bribery enforcers have rarely levied large fines against corruption cases, but are now going after the scalps of one of the country’s richest men as well as one of Europe’s flagship industrial companies. Billionaire Vincent Bollore was detained for police interrogation Tuesday and could face corruption charges while Airbus SE reportedly risks a fine in excess of $1 billion.
For years, French regulators were missing from the international corruption enforcement scene, an absence that earned the country a rebuke from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development at the beginning of the decade. U.S. authorities, on the other hand, haven’t been shy in fining foreign companies -- especially French ones.
“The current trend for anti-corruption in France is unique,” said Nicolas Tollet, a Paris-based lawyer with Hughes Hubbard & Reed. “More and more companies are being investigated for corruption. France was very inactive until very recently. That was partly due to a lack of willingness from the French state to prosecute companies for corruption."
France introduced a much tougher anti-corruption law last year that allows for settlements and obliges companies with more than 500 employees and 100 million euros ($122 million) in revenue to set up monitored anti-corruption policies.
The approach to a case against Total SA can serve as an example of the difference between the continents. Nearly 15 years after the case was first opened, French judges fined the oil company 750,000 euros in a corruption case linked to Iraq’s oil-for-food program. That’s about 500 times less than what it paid in the U.S.
Other French companies have been targeted in American corruption cases. In 2010, Technip SA settled for $338 million and that same year, Alcatel-Lucent SAS paid $137 million. In 2015, Alstom SA was forced to pay a $772 million fine in a bribery case.
American regulators fined BNP Paribas SA -- France’s largest bank -- $9 billion four years ago to settle a sanctions violations case. While the case didn’t involve corruption, the amount of its fine got the attention of companies and authorities in France, Stephane Bonifassi, a criminal lawyer in Paris who wasn’t involved in the case, said in a phone interview.
“France decided it’s time to get its act together, otherwise it would just get fleeced by U.S. authorities,” Bonifassi said.
Lucie Mongin-Archambeaud, a Paris-based business ethnics lawyer with Osborne Clarke, said France wanted to show that it too can fight corruption, and doesn’t need the U.S. to lead the way.
“It became a sovereignty issue,” she said by phone.
As a result, enforcers in France have become bolder and better equipped in recent years.
A prosecutor specializing in major financial crime was set up in 2014 and has begun making a name for itself outside of France. The Parquet National Financier is working with the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office in the investigation of possible bribery by Airbus. The PNF is also going after Societe Generale SA over corruption allegations related to the bank’s work with the Libyan Investment Authority.
The elite prosecutor’s office also extracted in November a 300 million-euro fine from HSBC Holdings Plc when inaugurating the brand new settlement procedure similar to Deferred Prosecution Agreements.
The PNF has also had setbacks. While French prosecutors had sought a four-year prison sentence plus a 250 million-euro fine for Guy Wildenstein over tax-evasion charges, Paris judges fully cleared the art dealer earlier this year.
The probe into Bollore -- which could result in charges against the 66-year-old billionaire -- is looking at contracts awarded to his company for the operation of container terminals in Lome, Togo, and Conakry, Guinea, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named as the probe is ongoing.
Investigating judges suspect that managers of Bollore SA used advertising company Havas to facilitate the election of African officials by providing communications advice nearly a decade ago at a discount price, the person said. Other managers were also held for questioning Tuesday, according to the person.
His company, which had its share price sliced by 6.1 percent Tuesday, said its executives “are happy to cooperate fully” with authorities.
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