France | The Wages of Truth

Europe’s whistle-blowers look for strength in numbers

01 June 2015
In an open letter to the French president, whistle-blowers complained of being “left alone to face powerfully organised interest groups.”

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.

Listed as a speaker for the evening, but conspicuous by his absence, was Hervé Falciani. One of Europe’s most prominent whistle-blowers, Falciani leaked information on over 100,000 clients holding more than 180 billion at the Geneva branch of the bank HSBC, exposing international tax fraud on a giant scale, and is now cooperating with numerous governments on investigating offshore banking. “It was complicated for him,” was all the organisers told me. Falciani has been crucial in bringing whistle-blowers together. Late last year in Paris, Falciani’s lawyer, William Bourdon (who also represents the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden), registered the Plate-forme Internationale des Lanceurs d’Alerte—the International Whistleblowers’ Platform, or PILA. Bourdon told me in May that the nascent organisation is looking for funding and hopes to have a website up this summer. An op-ed piece in Le Monde last April, which Bourdon co-wrote with Edwy Plenel, founder of the French investigative website Mediapart, and Gerard Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, sketched out “a platform for the protection of whistle-blowers.” It described “a legal one-stop-shop, initially in Europe and then worldwide,” that would offer whistle-blowers “a strategy, sometimes allowing them to publicise the information they hold, or, at least, helping them anticipate risks.”

Falciani went underground after leaking the HSBC data in 2008, but surfaces occasionally. I met him in November, at a small café in the south of Paris. I found the 42-year-old standing outside, typing on the cracked screen of his smartphone, with a kick scooter folded at his feet. He was soft-spoken, until he started talking of banking secrecy. “The battle against opacity is a war against impunity and deregulated finance globally,” he told me. “It’s huge. Whistle-blowers put their personal and professional lives in danger. This is a risk, but this is also a means to an end.”

Two months after that meeting, Falciani published a book on his experiences, co-authored with the journalist Angelo Mincuzzi. The book came out in French this April, titled Séisme sur la planète finance—“Tremors on Planet Finance.” “The long-term objective,” Falciani states in it, describing PILA, “is to constitute a community without any geographical limits” that will “make sure that witnesses are protected, and, in cases where they have already been exposed, furnish them with legal, financial and professional aid.” Whistle-blowers “have to be protected,” he argues, “otherwise no one will ever take the decision to reveal what they have been witness to.”

Also in the book, Falciani explains why existing efforts at organising are not enough. Wikileaks, he says, is “the path not to take,” especially if planning legal action against wrongdoers. He cites the case of Rudolf Elmer, a former employee of the Swiss private bank Julius Bär, as an example. In 2008, Elmer allegedly gave Wikileaks data exposing the bank’s abetment of tax evasion. He was subsequently convicted of breaching Swiss secrecy laws, making the data he leaked unuseable in any Swiss court. He has accused Swiss authorities of harassment, and hasn’t been able to find employment. Falciani writes that Wikileaks failed to adequately shield or aid the whistle-blower. Elmer told me last month that he is now in touch with the incipient PILA network.

In November, Falciani appeared equanimous about the consequences he has faced. He has become something of a counter-culture icon, but has also been accused of trying to sell the HSBC data and fabricating stories. “The time will come when these stories will be proven wrong,” he said. Those who benefit from banking secrecy, he added, want “to divert attention from themselves. It’s not about me, you know.” He pointed out that the only person to have served prison time on the basis of the HSBC leaks is himself: five and a half months following a 2012 arrest in Spain, waiting for judges to consider an extradition request from Switzerland, where he is wanted for violating secrecy laws. Taking action against the banks, he insisted, is “very easy to do. It has often taken just one judge or one authority that has decided to not let the matter be forgotten”—as in Belgium, France and Argentina, where HSBC has been charged.Falciani told me later he was encouraged by the sympathy for whistle-blowers among Europe’s rising new leftist parties, including Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Podemos in Spain, which are vocal about tackling tax fraud by corporations and the rich. In April, I saw him in Madrid, speaking on fiscal policy at a Podemos conference.

There has been collective action beyond PILA too. At the Paris meeting, it was announced that 25 organisations had signed an open letter to the French president, François Hollande, appealing for special status for whistle-blowers, who “despite having acted in the public interest are left alone to face powerfully organised interest groups.” Their integrity, the letter continued, “has cost them their careers, their jobs, and has turned their personal lives upside down. Many among them, years after the making revelations, are still without jobs and are facing court cases against them.”

Sitting behind me at the Bourse was David Renous, a Belgian whistle-blower who used to work in the diamond industry. The 49-year-old clutched the text of his speech tightly as he got up to address the gathering. Renous used to deal in conflict diamonds in Africa, and he spoke of men and children who died in makeshift mines, “reduced to slaves among slaves, victims of a regime that starves them” and of a “sophisticated criminal organisation that stands on two pillars: that of corruption and greed.” Thunderous applause followed.

Renous gave authorities information that led to charges of tax fraud against his former employer, Omega Diamonds, in 2006. He exposed how the company forged documents to avoid over €2 billion in taxes over four years, undervaluing and overvaluing diamonds as they crossed borders and stashing undeclared income in offshore accounts—practices he alleges are common across the industry, including in India. “Kem chho?” he asked by way of greeting, after discovering I was Indian. I asked if he’d be interested in sharing his expertise with Indian investigators. “Of course,” he said. Within minutes, he was drawing organigrams to explain how Indian traders cheat tax and customs regulations.

Renous would have liked to remain anonymous, but in 2009 an unknown source leaked his name to the Belgian media. “I was completely burnt,” he said. “As a consequence, I’m still without a job, despite my qualifications and know-how in the diamond trade.” He has nothing to show for helping Belgian authorities and now lives on welfare. This April, he told me, the management of the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where he had volunteered as a guide for eight months, dismissed him on the grounds that he was now a controversial figure. It clearly rankled. He said whistle-blowers “are seen as people who must be eliminated,” and complained about the lack of formal status or legal protection for them. He had spoken to Falciani, he told me, and had agreed to take charge of a PILA branch in Brussels. “I could work passionately against corruption,” he said, “but what will I survive on? We need funds.”

Two days later, in the morning, Gibaud arrived at a labour tribunal in the north of Paris, for the final hearing in her harassment case—the culmination, she told me, of “my seven-year fight.” The court recognised that, under the definitions of French labour law, she had been harassed by UBS, and awarded her €30,000 as compensation. Gibaud left with mixed feelings: she felt vindicated by the judgment—“It proves I was right”—but found the compensation pathetic, not near enough to make up for her prolonged unemployment. Her view of how banks treat whistle-blowers remained grim. “They want to crush us like insects,” she said.