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Merz and the stolen tax data – saint or sinner?

The employee stole data from HSBC's building in Geneva Keystone

Swiss and French newspapers have mixed feelings following Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz’s announcement that Switzerland would suspend a tax accord with France.

Some think the embattled Merz – who in 2009 also held Switzerland’s rotating presidency – has a chance to end his year with a modicum of dignity, while others believe he’s merely whistling in the wind.

The government’s announcement on Wednesday was in protest at the French authorities’ handling of account data stolen from British bank HSBC in Geneva.

French tax authorities said they now had the names of 130,000 clients from numerous countries who had accounts in Switzerland. France could use the data to encourage suspected tax cheats into coming forward by the end of the year with amnesty offers.

“Merz delivers a sad end-of-year spectacle,” was the headline in the Tribune de Genève. “For the Swiss government – and Hans-Rudolf Merz in particular – the year will finish as it began: in humiliation, subject to external pressures – in brief, impotent,” it said.

At the end of 2008 Merz found himself having to bow and scrape in Washington so that UBS didn’t lose its banking licence, 12 months later Bern was again facing “strong-arm tactics – this time from France”.

Le Temps, also in Geneva, said Merz had been presented with a good opportunity to end the year “with a modicum of dignity” after a bruising year full of “inglorious capitulations”.

The paper added that the news had also come at a good time for the Swiss government in general. “Merz was able to say ‘enough’s enough!’ before a political party seized on the growing exasperation with the concessions made by Switzerland since the beginning of the financial crisis and exploited it.”

Paris had provided Bern with a “genuine pretext”, it said, “so the Swiss no longer need to slave away creating and maintaining an air of indignation”.

French own goal

“Double standards for a double taxation accord,” was the headline in the Basler Zeitung, which trained its crosshairs on the French authorities.

The paper’s Paris correspondent said he could vividly remember how in autumn 2008 France and Germany’s respective finance ministers – not to mention French President Nicolas Sarkozy – were banging the moral drum to mobilise forces against tax paradises.

As a result, he said, Switzerland and other countries buckled and ended up signing double taxation accords.

But this didn’t go far enough for Paris, “and the temptation was clearly too great to use illegally acquired data to squash a few tax dodgers – or at least threaten with tax checks or sanctions the more numerous French owners of Swiss bank accounts, with the result that they would remorsefully bring their money home”.

With a rhetorical sleight of hand, French Finance Minister Eric Woerth “now wants to convert the pilfered HSBC data into legally admissible evidence. That is clearly a case of double standards,” he added.

The chances of the taxation accord now being ratified have been sabotaged by Paris’s “arrogant” behaviour. “France’s somewhat immoral own goal will go down in history,” he concluded.

“Emergency brake”

Tabloid Blick led with the “Scandal in St Moritz” – a German being beaten up by locals – but tucked away on its front page was the headline “Tax dispute: Merz whistles in the wind”.

The minister’s comment that Switzerland could now concentrate on the post-crisis period was “well meaning but hardly realistic” bearing in mind the list of unsolved problems facing Switzerland, the paper said.

It concluded that the country was in a tight spot: France was going to ask for state assistance, following the United States’ pursuit of tax dodgers.

Merz had “cockily” cancelled the accord, but Blick wondered whether that would cut much mustard in Paris.

The Polanski connection

In France, Le Figaro wrote “Banking secrecy: Switzerland strikes back against France”.

The Paris newspaper said the Swiss decision was a “snub” for the French authorities, who had made the fight against banking secrecy a political priority.

Reader reaction on Le Monde’s website was mixed. “Switzerland is in no position to give lessons on morality when you look at all the dodgy characters who keep their money there,” wrote one reader. “The country’s one giant fence.”

Another added: “The real theft is banking secrecy, and the tax fraud that it enables.”

But a few came to Switzerland’s defence. “Switzerland remains a state of law! I think there’s something wrong if France doesn’t know that and is still using the stolen data. After French ministers criticised the (legal) arrest of Roman Polanski, what will be the next coup by France in its contempt for another country’s legal and political system?”

The Polanski theme was picked up by someone else. “Perhaps the Swiss should launch an international arrest warrant [for Woerth] for handling stolen documents?”

Thomas Stephens,

Switzerland wants to suspend revisions to a tax accord with France in protest at the French authorities’ handling of account data stolen from a British bank in Geneva.

A former employee at the HSBC Private Bank branch in Geneva handed French tax authorities account data on what could prove to be nearly every client at the institution.

Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz said on Tuesday that as a result Switzerland would halt ratification of the double taxation accord signed by Paris and Bern in August. It is one of 12 accords Switzerland signed to meet international transparency and cooperation standards, and had been transmitted to parliament for approval.

“In a state of law, this type of behaviour is unacceptable,” Merz said.

The informant has assumed a new name and is living in southern France under a witness protection programme.

French Finance Minister Eric Woerth told the French La Tribune on Thursday that “it would have been a mistake not doing anything. The fight against tax fraud can’t simply consist of begging the question”.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR