Stung by large U.S. fines, France to tighten anti-corruption laws

PARIS (Reuters) - France is tightening its anti-corruption laws to clean up its image after several French companies were slapped with huge fines abroad, with planned reforms including greater protection for whistleblowers and a new anti-corruption agency.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin speaks during a joint news conference with British Finance Minister George Osborne and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew following their participation in a United Nations Security Council meeting to approve a resolution to cut funding for Islamic State at U.N. headquarters in New York, December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Two years ago, France's biggest bank, BNP Paribas BNPP.PA, was fined $9 billion (6.3 billion pounds) by U.S. authorities over violations of sanctions against Sudan, Cuba and Iran.

French engineering company Alstom ALSO.PA and oil groups Total TOTF.PA and Technip TECF.PA were also forced to pay millions of dollars to the U.S. authorities over bribery allegations.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin will unveil the new bill to the cabinet on Wednesday, before sending it to parliament for discussion.

“We are badly ranked internationally, we’re under suspicion,” Sapin told France Inter radio on Tuesday.

“So we must wash away this suspicion and for that we need strong measures,” he said.

The bill will also include the creation of a government-wide registry of lobbyists and a ban on “large” gifts to government officials, officials at the finance ministry said.

France was ranked 23rd in Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index, below Germany, Britain and the United States, and was criticised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2014.

“To this day, no French company has yet been convicted for foreign bribery in France, whereas French companies have been convicted abroad for that offence,” the OECD said then, adding that it was concerned by France’s “lack of proactivity”.

Alstom was sentenced to pay a $772 million fine by a U.S. judge last year, the largest levied by the U.S. government in a foreign bribery case.

Total and Technip also agreed in recent years to pay millions of dollar to U.S. authorities to settle allegations of bribery of foreign officials.

“This is shocking, and almost insulting for our judiciary system,” said Sapin, who passed a first series of anti-bribery measures under a previous Socialist government in 1993.

By giving French judges a more efficient framework to crack down on bribery, French officials are also hoping to avoid future cases of French firms being forced by courts to allow monitors reporting to foreign governments into their operation, as was the case with BNP Paribas.

The government dropped an earlier plan to introduce the possibility for companies to plead guilty in exchange for a financial settlement, meant to bypass lengthy legal procedures, after France’s highest administrative court advised against it, Sapin said.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky