Thierry Breton take 2: double standards in the French Justice system

On Harry Truman’s desk was a sign which read “The Buck Stops Here”.  Is it just an American thing to believe that those at the top are ultimately responsible for what their organizations and people do? In France, “passing the buck” seems to be the motto.   

Mr. I-didn’t-know-anything-didn’t–do-anything-wrong Thierry Breton is sticking to his story even though more and more revelations seem to indicate he is a big liar. 

Even though he was Minister of Finance at the time, he refutes any responsibility in the EADS scandal where top managers and major investors sold stock options and shares at high prices just before it was announced Airbus would suffer major delays in delivering the A-380 super jumbo jet.  The white collar crooks made millions upon millions on what seems clearly to be an insider-trading scandal just before the stock lost 26%. 

As Minister of Finance, Breton was guardian of the 15% French government stake in EADS and ultimately responsible for the way government money was being used.  Does this not make him responsible for the fact that the French government bought half the stock of Arnauld Lagardere, a long-time friend of President Sarkozy, for at least 126-million euros in losses for the French tax-payer?  Apparently not. 


As Administrator and Auditor at Rhodia from 1998 to 2000, Breton claims he know nothing about cooking the books which, when the news of Rhodia’s financial liabilities was announced, led the price of shares to fall from 21 euros, eventually leveling out at one euro.  Breton was paid three million euros for his job and moved on to become President of France Telecom. 

Would, Arthur Anderson, the convicted auditor of Enron, not like such an excuse?  Jeffrey Skilling, who received 24 years in prison and Kenneth Lay who had the good grace to die from a heart attack before sentencing both claimed they knew nothing about Enron’s fraudulent book-keeping. Guilty! 

It is not just because “the buck stops” at the top.  It is also because they did know. And Thierry Breton must have known of the insider trading at EADS between November 2005 and March 2006.   

France Telecom 

Even if we could plausibly admit (which I do not) that as head of France Telecom he knew nothing about price fixing with the other cell phone operators, is he not ultimately responsible?  How could he not have known?  Cell phones were the fastest growing and most lucrative market at the time. 

Perhaps not enough American white-collar crooks go to jail, but they do go to jail.  In France the tendency is to bury the case and sue the company, not the managers.  France Telecom received the biggest fine ever for the price fixing scandal which meant that, as a largely French government owned company at the time, the tax-payer had to foot the bill. 

Politicians get off too so Breton has twice the chance to stay free.  Jacques Chirac refuses to answer questions about financial mis-dealings under his management as Mayor of Paris and President.  Former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was let off from the ELF petroleum company embezzlement scandal.  He just accepted the gifts, while his girlfriend, who gave him the gifts, received 18 months.  The list is too long. 

It is better to be rich and in good health than poor and ill. 

This summer the new National Assembly voted President Sarkozy’s get tough on crime bill imposing minimum sentences for repeat-offenders.  This week a man was sentenced to two-years in prison for stealing ten euros from an old lady. The man shares 380 euros in monthly welfare with his mother.  A homeless man got two-years for stealing an umbrella from a car.  A former heroine addict who found a job, a place to live and a girl-friend (obvious attempts at reinsertion) received four-years for buying a bar of cannabis.  

Judge Eric Halphen says Justice is “clement towards the powerful”.  Halphen used to be a major corruption investigating magistrate.  Chirac’s government put Halphen in charge of indemnities for people who suffered road accidents to get him out of the way.  Sarkozy will probably keep him there. The new president wants to make it harder to press charges against white-collar criminals by reducing to three years the time allowed for the case to be made from the time the crime was committed instead of three years from its discovery. 

Halphen says “You cannot be both for tolerance zero towards common law criminals and favor impunity towards bosses and politicians.”  Apparently, in France, you can. 

In the 1980’s the French political class invented the term “responsible but not guilty” after they knowingly allowed haemophiliacs and others to receive Aids tainted blood because they did not want to buy an American made test.  The delay until a French test was ready led to thousands of deaths.  Then Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and the Minister of Health Georgina Dufoix got off free as larks.

 Thierry Breton will certainly be called back to parliament for new testimony to find out who is lying in the EADS scandal.  He would be better advised to change his story from “I did not know” to “I don’t recall.”  After all, it kept former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales out of jail … for the time being.