Banking scandal: Kerviel hailed as 'the Che Guevara of high finance'

Trader who lost SocGen £3.6bn is being fêted as a class warrior
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The Independent Online

Come out from hiding and take a bow, Jérôme Kerviel, wherever you are. The alleged biggest "rogue" trader in banking history is emerging in France not as a rogue but a tragic hero.

In one opinion poll in France, only 13 per cent of people questioned thought that Mr Kerviel, 31, should be held responsible for losing €4.9bn (£3.6bn) of his employer's money. Half thought that Société Générale, France's second- largest bank, was the real villain.

He has also become a kind of international folk hero on hundreds of sites and blogs – some sincere, some ironic – on the internet. He is variously described as, among other things, the "Che Guevara of Finance" and the "Bin Laden of the Bourse".

A case could indeed be made that the trader was not truly a villain, but a kind of class warrior in a peculiarly French kind of social tragedy. The leaked transcripts of his two days of interrogation by fraud investigators, and comments on his motives by the Paris chief prosecutor, are intriguing. They suggest that Mr Kerviel, as a provincial boy with a down-market university education, was driven by a burning desire to prove himself in a banking world dominated by a self-perpetuating French social and educational elite.

"I realised, during my first interview [for a trading job] in 2005 that I was looked down upon because of my university background and my professional career to date," Mr Kerviel told his interrogators. The Paris chief prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, said in a press conference on Monday: "He wanted to show that he was worth as much as the others around him ... He truly believed that he would succeed and everyone would recognise his financial genius."

Almost all senior officials in banks and large companies in France – and most senior figures in politics and the civil service – come through the highly selective network of elite colleges called the grandes écoles. Mr Kerviel was educated at his local lycée in the far west of Brittany and then the perfectly respectable – but in French terms second-string – universities of Nantes and Lyons.

To reach the grandes écoles, students have to complete preparatory courses of up to two years. Youngsters are chosen for such courses based on their results and reports from top lycées before they take the baccalauréat (equivalent of A-levels).

Although officially a way of selecting the educational crème de la crème, the grandes écoles have become for the most part the breeding ground of a permanent social and administrative elite. Clever sons of hairdressers from Finistère need not apply.

There is some evidence that the grip of the grandes écoles system on French life is gradually weakening. Mr Kerviel was promoted from "middle office" to the trading floor at SocGen in 2005 as part of the bank's new policy of "social" promotion. His new-found notoriety will, doubtless, convince members of the French ruling caste that this was a dangerously revolutionary idea.

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