View from City Road: What's the French fuss about?

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The Independent Online
Do you find it hard to avoid a smug feeling as the French work themselves into a lather about widespread corruption in business? Look closer at the dozens of cases that are surfacing, and it is sometimes hard to see what all of the fuss is about.

If every company chairman in Britain was liable for fraud in a subsidiary, Pentonville would be full of distinguished remand prisoners. But that is basically what the Belgian arrest warrant for Didier Pineau- Valencienne, chairman of France's Schneider group, is about.

The case against Jean-Louis Beffa, chairman of Saint-Gobain, the glassmaker, is that he used political contributions to buy influence. A serious allegation, perhaps, but not unfamiliar here.

Pierre Suard, the chief executive of France's Alcatel-Alsthom, has been charged with forgery and misuse of funds. The issue was whether he fully reimbursed the company for work it paid for at his home on a security system, installed after the government warned businessmen to be more careful. That pales into insignificance beside some of the perks British directors give themselves.

As for recent insider trading cases in France, it may be part of the business and political culture, but that applies here, too.

The fashionable view in France, as a survey in Le Monde confirmed, is that the 100 or so cases that have surfaced against businessmen are the tip of an iceberg of illegality.

There are some grave cases. But so far, French business corruption is a pale shadow of what has surfaced in court in Britain over the past few years. And the suggestion that it is comparable to what has been happening over the Alps in Italy is nonsense.