France gets serious about anti-corruption

Posted on: Friday, December 15th, 2017

Earlier this year the French government enacted Sapin II, an anti-bribery and corruption law that bolstered the country’s transparency and anti-corruption efforts. The legislation was introduced after criticism over the years of France’s anti-bribery and corruption efforts from several quarters (including the OECD). The introduction of Sapin II was the most significant initiative on anti-corruption in the country in decades.

The most eye-catching changes ushered in by the law were the extension of France’s jurisdictional reach to include French nationals who have committed offences outside of France, or a person outside of France but operating partly or wholly in the country; the dissolution of dual criminality; and the extension of powers to prosecute influence peddling.

Other weighty measures brought in included a maximum fine of €1 million for legal entities deemed to have failed to have established a compliance programme; the mandatory training of high-risk employees in bribery and corruption; risk assessments carried out on clients and third parties; and protections for whistle blowers put in place. The stipulations within the law are applicable to French businesses whose revenues exceed €100 million and have more than 500 employees.

Additionally, a new agency was established – the Agence Francaise Anti-corruption (AFA) – which possesses both investigatory and supervisory powers in relation to French companies, and has the power to impose financial sanctions against non-compliant companies through its Enforcement Committee.

Sapin II’s owes its conception, in part, to two acts from the Anglo-American sphere: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the UK Bribery Act. Both of these acts are considered to be amongst the most thorough anti-corruption measures in existence (thought the latter has not been without its detractors).

France’s anti-corruption efforts have not always been as robust. The country’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) rating – a relatively healthy 23 out of 176 – does not necessarily provide an accurate picture of corruption in the country (as demonstrated by Simone Jones’ recent exploration of corruption in Denmark, the number one ranked nation on the CPI) but a recent verdict delivered by a Paris court has reinforced hopes that the country has turned a corner when it comes to anti-corruption.

Biens mal acquis 

A decade-long legal battle between the French branch of Transparency International (in conjunction with the NGO Sherpa) and Teodorin Obiang, the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, a miniscule coastal country – no bigger than the US state of Maryland – in west Africa, came to an end in October, when a French court gave Obiang a three-year suspended sentence and a €30 million fine (again suspended) for money laundering, embezzlement and corruption.

The ruler of Equatorial Guinea is Obiang’s father, whose 38-year stint in charge has been beset with allegations of human rights abuses; he is also widely considered one of the most corrupt rulers on the planet. Obiang lives on the wealthiest street in Paris, and had amassed a fortune that would be the envy of any wannabee money launderer. As widely reported, he revelled in an ostentatious lifestyle befitting the son of a corrupt African dictator, being in possession of at least eleven luxury cars, numerous artworks and a nine-storey Parisian mansion.

Of course the population of Equatorial Guinea are amongst the most impoverished on earth and Obiang – who never bothered to turn up for his trial – will see his assets confiscated. Transparency International have now begun a new battle to see that the seized money is redistributed to the people of Equatorial Guinea, and not included in the French national budget. A lawyer for Transparency International described the verdict as a ‘worldwide message for Kleptocrats’.

The case against Obiang is a stark reminder of why anti-bribery and corruption laws are enacted, and it is particularly significant that the case took place in France. The Guardian noted how France has in the past been willing to look past the offspring of foreign dictator’s spending their ill-gotten gains in the French capital. Further cases are scheduled to take place, again against family members of the ruling elite in African countries Congo Brazzaville and Gabon.

The prosecution of Obiang was not brought by the French government, and so perhaps it is too soon to herald a bold new dawn for anti-corruption in France. But nevertheless these measures are a huge step in the right direction. Such cases represent a cultural shift that slowly changes attitudes and beliefs. Sapin II and the conviction (even if a suspended sentence was imposed) of a PEP on money laundering charges are signs of a healthy anti-corruption culture growing in France.

Words by Jake Plenderleith


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