| PARIS, June 2
PARIS, June 2 France is wary of speaking out
about a U.S. criminal probe into BNP Paribas, putting
bilateral ties ahead of a threatened $10 billion-plus fine for
its biggest listed bank, lawmakers indicated on Monday.
To date, government ministers have said little about BNP
Paribas' negotiations with U.S. authorities investigating
whether it evaded U.S. sanctions related primarily to countries
Sudan, Iran, Syria between 2002 and 2009.
Even normally outspoken figures such as Economy Minister
Arnaud Montebourg, who criticised a recent General Electric
bid for French energy group Alstom's energy assets, held
back when asked if he was surprised by the U.S. move.
"I cannot, I cannot, I cannot make any comments at this
stage. This is impossible, not now," he told Reuters during a
visit in the south of France.
U.S. authorities allege the bank stripped out identifying
information from wire transfers so they could pass through the
U.S. financial system without raising red flags, sources told
Sources familiar with the negotiations said a settlement
could include a fine of over $10 billion and other penalties,
such as a guilty plea and possible temporary suspension of the
bank's authority to clear U.S. dollar transactions.
Charles de Courson, secretary for the finance committee of
the lower house of parliament, said the issue seemed linked to
"a political tug of war" in the Obama administration. "We need
to be careful in order not to fall into a trap," he said.
Karine Berger, another member of the committee, said: "The
United States has a very firm position, especially towards Iran,
and this is an unacceptable situation for them if BNP has truly
approved dollar transactions to Iran."
HOLLANDE AND OBAMA
According to Les Echos newspaper on Monday, President
Francois Hollande will raise the issue with his U.S. counterpart
Barack Obama when they meet at World War Two 70th anniversary
commemorations in Normandy, northern France, later this week.
Hollande's office declined to comment on whether BNP
Paribas was on the agenda of his meeting with Obama on Thursday.
A finance ministry official told Reuters: "The procedure,
engaged in by the United States is an affair between a private
company and U.S. justice. The finance minister is regularly kept
informed of developments."
New York state's top banking regulator, Benjamin Lawsky,
wants to see some senior executives fired for their roles, two
sources familiar with the matter said on Saturday.
"If this is proved, the French government should certainly
not interfere. Or it could give an impression that France takes
a political position vis-a-vis the Middle East," said Berger.
BNP has lost over 6 billion euros of market capitalisation
since end-April on investor fears the bank may rethink its
dividend payout policy, currently at 45 percent of earnings, on
the back of a possible slide in capital solvency and changes to
the business model in case of a heavy fine.
A similarly low-profile approach was adopted by Britain's
finance minister George Osborne to limit the damage faced by
Standard Chartered after it came under fire from U.S.
regulators for breaching U.S. sanctions, a UK government source
told Reuters in August 2012 when the story broke.
Osborne made a series of phone calls to U.S. Treasury
Secretary Timothy Geithner to express concern at the way details
of the case came out, after Lawsky called Standard Chartered a
"rogue institution" for breaking U.S. sanctions.
French central bank governor Christian Noyer said last month
that French regulators were closely watching the affair, but had
no evidence French or United Nations rules had been broken.
France's No.2 listed bank Societe Generale and
No.3 Credit Agricole are also cooperating the U.S.
authorities by conducting internal reviews of payments
denominated in U.S. dollars involving countries or individuals
that could be subject to the U.S. economic sanctions.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marignane,
Leigh Thomas in Paris and Steve Slater in London; Writing by
Maya Nikolaeva; Editing by Andrew Callus and Tom Heneghan)