Guest Post: How France Is Modernizing Its Criminal Procedure and Streamlining Its Resolution of Corporate Crime Cases

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris and New York offices of Debevoise & Plimpton and a Lecturer at Columbia Law School, who contributes the following guest post:

For approximately two decades, at least since 2000, France—a signatory to the 1997 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention — has had laws on the books that emulate the U.S. Foreign Corruption Practices Act (FCPA) by criminalizing bribes to foreign public officials. For most of that time, these laws were not effectively enforced: During the first 15 years after France prohibited foreign bribery, not a single corporation was convicted in France. The reasons for this—previously discussed on this blog by me and others—included the low maximum penalties applicable to corporations, imprecision in French laws relating to corporate criminal responsibility, lengthy investigations (often lasting over a decade) run by investigating magistrates, and the virtual absence of any possibility of a negotiated outcome. In the absence of French enforcement of its laws against foreign bribery, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took it upon itself to investigate and prosecute a number of French corporations for FCPA and other violations. These enforcement actions, which were typically resolved by guilty pleas or deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), netted aggregate fines and other penalties of over $2 billion, not a penny of which was paid to France.

This situation provoked widespread discussion and debate in France, and eventually led to a number of changes in its criminal procedures. Among the most important were the creation, in 2013, of a National Financial Prosecutor’s office (PNF) with nationwide authority to prosecute a variety of financial crimes, and the adoption, in December 2016, of the so-called Loi Sapin II, which overhauled many of the criminal laws relating to corporate and financial crime, increasing corporate penalties, adopting a new settlement procedure called the Convention Judiciaire d’Intérêt Public (CJIP) closely modeled on the US DPA, and creating a French Anticorruption Agency (AFA) to supervise newly-mandatory corporate compliance programs and issue guidelines for corporate behavior. These reforms have already produced some impressive results, including major settlements (sometimes in cooperation with other countries like the US and UK) with large French and multinational companies (see, for example, here, here, and here).

An interview published this past April with Jean-François Bohnert, who has served since October 2019 as the National Financial Prosecutor, sheds some light on how France’s recent legal and institutional reforms are transforming its enforcement of its laws against foreign bribery and other complex corporate crime. In that interview, M. Bohnert understandably focused on his office’s successes; he was particularly proud of the number of cases his office had handled with a relatively small staff. But to my mind, by far the most interesting and important thing that came out of this interview was the fact that, of the 592 cases handled by the PNF in 2019, 81% were so-called “preliminary investigations” managed exclusively by the PNF, while only 19% were led by investigating magistrates. To someone unfamiliar with the French legal system, the significance of this statistic may not be readily apparent, but in fact it suggests an important change in the French approach to corporate misbehavior. Continue reading