* France probing UBS over allegations it aided tax evasion
* France demanded 1.1 bln euro guarantee payment from UBS
* UBS says payment unprecedented and unwarranted
(Adds comment from source on negotiations between Paris
prosecutors and UBS)
By Chine Labbé
PARIS/ZURICH, July 24 A 1.1 billion euro ($1.5
billion) guarantee payment demanded by French judges of Swiss
bank UBS reflects the size of the fine it could pay if
found guilty of helping wealthy French customers avoid tax, the
French prosecutor's office said on Thursday.
In a major escalation of a 15-month inquiry, the
Zurich-based bank was put under formal investigation on
Wednesday on allegations it laundered the proceeds of tax
evasion and was ordered to make what it called an "unprecedented
and unwarranted" guarantee payment.
France's Socialist government has taken a tough stance on
tax evasion and has recovered just over 1 billion euros so far
this year from taxpayers coming clean on their hidden assets, of
which 80 percent are in Switzerland.
A $9 billion fine levied by U.S. officials against BNP
Paribas for sanctions violations earlier this month -
a stinging rebuke for the grand dame of French banking - appears
to have complicated UBS's settlement talks, taking place at the
French officials feared a backlash if they settled with UBS
for a "paltry" sum of less than 100 million euros, which had
been on the negotiating table until BNP's fine emerged, a source
familiar with the matter told Reuters.
However, French officials denied that version of events. A
Finance Ministry source told Reuters the government had refused
all approaches to negotiate an out-of-court settlement.
Authorities in France, one of the few countries to levy
deposit guarantees from corporations in criminal cases, defended
the surety for UBS, which is also in the crosshairs in Germany
and Belgium for how it dealt with wealthy clients and tax.
"It was by assessing the fine that is potentially applicable
that the level of the surety was fixed," an official in the
prosecutor's office said, adding that if guilty, UBS would pay a
fine equivalent to half the value of the transactions involved.
UBS has already paid a much smaller 2.875 million euro
guarantee in the case. The official said UBS would now have to
make up the difference to 1.1 billion euros by Sept. 30, and in
one single transfer.
In a statement on Wednesday, UBS said it considered the
legal basis and calculation for the sum to be "deeply flawed"
and announced it would appeal.
The Swiss bank was fined $780 million for helping wealthy
U.S. citizens avoid taxes in 2009.
French investigating judges suspect UBS regularly helped
wealthy French clients avoid tax during the period from 2004 to
2012 and opened an inquiry into the activities of the bank and
its French unit in April 2013.
The alleged sales practices in question involved seeking out
wealthy customers in France who would be interested in opening
bank accounts inaccessible to French tax authorities.
Three former and current executives with UBS' French
subsidiary were also individually placed under investigation, a
spokesman at the subsidiary said on Wednesday.
"In the course of the last few years, we have done
everything we can to bring this matter to a close. We have also
taken significant and broad steps to ensure tax compliance of
our clients and will continue to do so," UBS said.
Switzerland effectively ended Swiss banking secrecy in May
by agreeing to join other countries in sharing tax information
once that is established as an international standard.
Cooperation efforts between Paris and Switzerland have been
complicated by a long-running dispute over inheritance tax for
wealthy French citizens in Switzerland.
(Reporting by Chine Labbe and Yann Le Guernigou in Paris and
Katharina Bart in Zurich; Writing by Mark John; Editing by
Andrew Callus and Mark Potter)