French prosecutor’s office eagerly awaits launch of European equivalent

French public prosecutor Éliane Houlette speaks during a press conference in Unterschleissheim, Germany, 14 January 2016. [EPA/ Sven Hoppe]

France’s anti-corruption efforts were boosted three years ago with the creation of a national finance prosecutor’s office (PNF). The planned European Public Prosecutor’s Office could simplify its now high-profile investigations. EURACTIV France reports.

The Fillon affair, fictitious employment of parliamentary assistants by the Front National and the Bruno Le Roux case. The newly-minted PNF has been at the heart of anti-corruption efforts against France’s political class in recent months.

The new prosector, set up in the wake of the Cahuzac scandal, inherited the delicate job of investigating insider trading, tax-fraud (the Panama Papers, etc.) and various other forms of corruption and influence-buying.

The Cahuzac scandal, named after François Hollande’s former budgets minister, was the catalyst for a renewed fight against political corruption. Jérôme Cahuzac was accused and then found guilty of having hid a Swiss bank account from French tax authorities.

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The PNF, under the charge of Éliane Houlette, has gained credibility since it was set up.  “When we were first set up by the law of December 2013, few people were convinced of the usefulness of this tool,” she explained at an anti-corruption event on 7 April, held in Strasbourg.

But since late 2013 the number of personnel has grown from five to 15 and the caseload has increased too. The PNF has submitted 40 cases of insider trading, 150 cases of tax fraud and 150 related to corruption.

The authority has found itself in the limelight ever since opening a preliminary investigation into presidential candidate François Fillon, following revelations published by Canard Enchaîné.

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But its investigation has been branded as politically-motivated. The PNF insists that it “reacts when a case merits attention”, pointing out that it has approached the Fillon affair in the same way as other cases, like the Panama Papers.

“Economic and financial crime cannot be treated differently,” the prosecutor added, acknowledging that its work often involves sensitive cases “as you will have seen in recent weeks”.

Houlette, questioned about the corruption cases that have implicated candidates in the presidential campaign, said she hopes that the recent investigations will “lead to reforms by the politicians themselves”.

However, while the Cahuzac affair may have given anti-corruption efforts an initial boost, the fight has stalled somewhat recently.

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“After Cahuzac, there was some good momentum. But then we had the terrorist attacks and it wasn’t a priority anymore. Even if we have new business to attend to now,” explained Thomas de Ricolfis, director of the judicial police’s anti-corruption division (OCLCIFF).

The PNF’s capacity to carry out investigations is only set to increase in the coming years. Cooperation with other European authorities, which is already important, will also be developed.

Plans to set up a European Public Prosecutor’s Office could help cross-border investigations like the Panama Papers scandal.

“The European prosecutor is at the beginning. But when the time comes, it will play its rightful role and we are of course interested in that,” insisted Houlette. “Its creation will simplify investigations and it will be easier to coordinate,” she added.

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