Last October, the French government created the Central Office Against Corruption, Financial and Fiscal Offences. The Office is part of a broader reform project that aims to strengthen the fight against financial crimes in France. It was announced in April 2013 by President Hollande, after his Budget Minister admitted having an undeclared Swiss bank account for the past 20 years.
The new Office operates under the National Direction of Judicial Police. It is divided into three units and is competent to investigate white collar crimes, fiscal offenses falling under the French Tax Code, complex cases of vote manipulation, wrongful political financing and ethical offences- essentially corruption and conflict of interest. It is hierarchically more powerful than the office it replaces and it occupies a more strategic position, as it centralizes all the information and acts as focal point in its field of competence.
More importantly, the new Office has the authority to initiate investigations without a preliminary request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Traditionally, when it comes to financial crimes, the French Public Prosecutor’s Office has the exclusive authority to order an investigation and initiate prosecution. This authority, combined with the fact that the French Public Prosecutor’s Office receives instructions directly from the Ministry of Justice, has long been identified by the OECD Working Group on bribery as being the main cause of France’s poor enforcement of foreign bribery laws. One can hope that with the creation of the new Office, investigators will be more independent, which, in time, will have a positive impact on enforcement.
The creation of a Prosecutor office exclusively in charge of prosecuting allegations of corruption, financial and fiscal offense is also under discussion as part of the reform project. This would be another substantial step in the repression of these offences, strengthened by the fact that President Hollande’s government seems determined to grant more independence to prosecutors. Last year, a new regulation provided that the Ministry of Justice could no longer address individual instructions to prosecutors.
Time will tell if this series of reforms will lead to a stronger repression of corruption and financial offences in France, but President Hollande’s determination to make the judicial branch more independent and ongoing efforts to strengthen the fight against corruption and financial offences are certainly promising.
Elisabeth Danon is a legal analyst at the World Bank, where she specializes in public procurement. She holds an LL.M. in International Business and Economic Law from Georgetown University Law Center and a law degree from Université Paris X Nanterre (France). She is admitted to practice law in the state of New York. Prior to joining the World Bank, Elisabeth worked at the Anti-corruption Division of the OECD. She can be contacted here.