NOT FAR FROM Paris’s iconic Place de la République, where many major street protests begin, a steady crowd poured into the Bourse du Travail—the historical home of the city’s council of labour unions. It was the evening of 3 March, and about a dozen European whistle-blowers were gathering for a rare public appearance. Inside, in a high-ceilinged hall, they sat individually among some 100 attendees, talking to journalists and friends. Some visitors congratulated them in hushed tones on their work. A statue of Marianne, a personification of the values of the French Republic, and a bust of the assassinated socialist leader Jean Jaurès, looked out over a podium.
Soon the speeches began. “I was alone. I was so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” Stephanie Gibaud, who had invited me to attend, said. A former public-relations manager for the bank UBS France, Gibaud said she was harassed after refusing to destroy files that could incriminate the bank in a tax probe. In 2009, she filed complaints against UBS for courting super-rich clients, at events she had to organise, with promises of helping them evade taxes. This led to a criminal investigation, and the bank was charged with abetting tax fraud and fined ¤1.1 billion, a French record for such a case. Gibaud, now a 49-year-old single mother with two teenaged sons, was subsequently fired, and has not been able to find a job since. She survives on welfare and some help from her family, and is battling depression. She was due in a labour court in two days, to hear the verdict of a harassment suit against her former employers, and was visibly tense. “I only told the truth,” she said, “but people are afraid of me.”
After Gibaud’s speech, other whistle-blowers at the meeting, organised in solidarity by France’s largest trade union, took turns at the podium. They included former insiders from banks, the French government, the diamond trade, and elsewhere. Like Gibaud, they have all paid a high personal price for exposing wrongdoing. Across Europe, they exist in an uncomfortable limbo: heroes to some but suspect to others, helping authorities investigate lawbreaking but with no special legal protections themselves—a particular problem when taking on industries shielded by potent secrecy laws and lobbies, such as banking. Here, Europe’s whistle-blowers had come together openly to signal that they are organising to better defend themselves.