By Patrick Vignal
PARIS, April 23 France has opened a probe into
whether British bank HSBC offered illicit products to
help French clients avoid tax in Switzerland, the Paris
prosecutors' office said on Tuesday.
It is the latest sign of governments cracking down on tax
evasion and money laundering after the financial crisis. France
is also probing Swiss bank UBS over whether it offered
to help clients avoid tax.
An HSBC spokeswoman declined to comment.
The British bank last year agreed to pay a record $1.92
billion in fines to U.S. authorities for allowing itself to be
used to launder drug money flowing out of Mexico and for other
The French investigation into the alleged sale of illicit
products and tax fraud is based on a list of clients at HSBC's
Swiss unit obtained in 2009, the prosecutor's office said.
The list forms part of a batch of data leaked by former HSBC
employee Herve Falciani, who is wanted in Switzerland on
allegations of stealing data on tens of thousands of bank
accounts. Falciani told a Spanish court last week he was a
whistleblower fighting corruption.
The French government is fighting to regain credibility on
the issue of tax after the dramatic resignation of former budget
minister Jerome Cahuzac and his admission earlier this month
that he had held a secret bank account in Switzerland.
Government minister Arnaud Montebourg had last week called
for the French judiciary to "wake up" on the issue of tax fraud.
A historical bastion of banking secrecy, Switzerland has
been under fire for several years for turning a blind eye to the
sheltering of taxable income by its banking sector.
UBS, Switzerland's largest bank, paid $780 million in 2009
and handed over thousands of client names to settle U.S. charges
that it helped U.S. citizens hide funds.