Jérôme Kerviel is finding it difficult to deal with his new-found fame. In the space of 24 hours, the Breton-born amateur yachtsman, judo expert and dog lover has become one of most talked-about Frenchmen in history.
His frowning, puzzled, handsome ID photo has appeared on every TV station, and almost every newspaper front page, in the world. Even Nicolas Sarkozy might have reason to be jealous.
M. Kerviel, 31, who is married but separated, is alleged to be responsible for the largest one-man fraud in the history of banking. According to his lawyers, he is finding it difficult to comprehend what has happened to him. The lawyers insist, however, that he is not on the run and will answer questions from French investigators.
M. Kerviel's mother travelled to Paris to be with him on Thursday "because he wasn't handling things well", according to his aunt Sylviane Kerviel.
"Jérôme has done nothing wrong," she said. "He was a reserved, serious child. He didn't pocket a centime, I'm sure of it."
According to his former employers, Société Gé*érale, M. Kerviel, a junior futures trader, created a fiendish cat's cradle of real and fake trades that cost France's second largest bank almost €5bn (£3.7bn). He has been variously described as a "genius of fraud", an "ordinary guy", "brilliant", "not really a star", a "manic-depressive" and a "quiet, thoughtful, young man".
The motives for his alleged actions remain a mystery. The bank says there is no sign that he tried to enrich himself. Questioned by senior managers last weekend, he claimed to have invented a brilliant, new form of futures trading.
Senior bank officials suggest that he may have been "unbalanced" by the break-up of his marriage last year or the death of his father, Charles Kerviel, two years ago. Others accuse him of an act of "malevolence" towards a company which refused – until too late – to recognise his talents.
Who is Jérôme Kerviel? He started the week with 11 registered friends on Facebook, and ended the week with none. However, the site now has two new registered groups: "The Jérôme Kerviel Fan Club" and "Jérôme Kerviel should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics".
M. Kerviel was born in Pont L'Abbé, a small market town in the far west of the Breton peninsula. His father was a teacher and youth worker. His mother runs a hairdressers' shop in the town.
He left Pont L'Abbé after school to take degrees in economics and finance in Nantes and Lyon. He joined Société Gé*érale eight years ago, first as a "middle office" employee, dealing with, among other things, the bank's trading security systems. He moved two years ago to become a junior trader in "plain vanilla" (ie, basic) shares futures, earning less than €100,000 a year.
Five years ago, he ran unsuccessfully to be a town councillor on the same list at Pont L'Abbé's mayor, Thierry Mavic. M. Mavic said yesterday: "I am absolutely astounded ... He is a confident, quiet, thoughtful young man, who took an interest in politics and current affairs."
The alleged "rogue" trader has a younger brother, also working in Paris. M. Kerviel lived in a small flat in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy suburb of Paris, close to the La Défense business district where he worked. The letter box at the entrance to the four-storey block had a scribbled message to journalists yesterday: "Don't search here. He has been seeking refuge elsewhere probably for some time now."
Anne Gillier, who works nearby, said M. Kerviel was "handsome" and well-dressed. "He was physically seductive, always elegantly dressed, but alone," she said. "I never saw him with a woman, or another man."
A colleague at Société Gé*érale described him as "manic depressive but pleasant enough". Another said that he was an "introvert, awkward, someone who didn't like to talk about private things".
Another colleague, talking to the newspaper Le Parisien, said: "He was a handsome kind of guy, in the Tom Cruise mould. But I thought that he sucked up to the bosses. He didn't have the weight to be a trader."
M. Kerviel is likely to be questioned in the next few days by police and magistrates investigating formal allegations of "forgery" and computer hacking.
Last night it emerged that four plain-clothed police officers spent more than two hours searching his apartment. The officers left carrying several briefcases. It is alleged by Société Gé*érale that he used his knowledge of the bank's security system to erect a complex scaffold of real and fictitious trades on shares futures. The large real trades, betting on the upward movement of European stocks, seemed to be balanced by other deals, betting on their fall. This was normal practice – except that the downward trades were fictitious, a fact hidden by manipulation of the bank's computer systems using stolen IDs and passwords.
Serious doubts were raised yesterday about the bank's claim that M. Kerviel had, undetected by superiors, made trades worth up to €50bn – more than the value of the bank itself. Senior bank officials said that he was a "genius of fraud".
André Tiran, dean of the Lyon finance faculty where M. Kerviel was a student, said that he had achieved a mention (grade) "quite good" in his masters degree. "If he was a genius, we didn't spot it," he said.
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