French banking giant BNP Paribas shed a top executive on Thursday in its fight against massive impending US penalties for sanctions busting, and more heads look set to roll.
The bank insisted that chief operating officer Georges Chodron de Courcel was taking retirement.
But the sudden decision signals a concession to ward off a massive fine, reported possibly to exceed $10 billion (7.4 billion euros).
The announcement is a crucial development, since France has said that the possibility of what it sees as “disproportionate” penalties could upset talks on a vast free-trade pact between the 28-member European Union and United States.
At the beginning of June, various sources told AFP that the bank would sack Chodron de Courcel to placate US authorities.
The New York state banking regulator Benjamin Lawsky called several months ago for him to be dismissed, AFP has learnt.
The US authorities are believed to have claimed the head of another senior executive, a source close to the matter told AFP on Thursday.
He is Vivien Levy-Garboua, formerly in charge of internal controls at the bank’s operations in North America and now an adviser to the management.
Various sources say that Lawsky has demanded that about a dozen bankers should lose their jobs over the incriminated transactions.
The sources said that the bank was believed to have drawn up a list of names in response, but its chairman, Baudouin Prot, was not mentioned even though he had been rumoured to be in the firing line.
In addition to the possible huge fines, the bank may have to suspend dollar transactions in the US, according to US media.
The bank is accused of breaking sanctions against Iran, Sudan and Cuba between 2002 and 2009 by carrying out dollar transactions with them, but such cases are usually the subject of negotiations with US judicial officials.
BNP Paribas, and the French government, now appear to be deep in this process.
On Wednesday, the US Treasury Department said that earlier this year US officials had granted BNP Paribas permission to operate in Iran.
That was in the context of an easing of sanctions against Iran under an interim agreement reached in November in negotiations on the country’s nuclear programme.
The bank presented the sudden ending of Chodron de Courcel’s functions, on June 30, as retirement with effect from September 30 after a lifelong career of 42 years at the bank, without mentioning the US charges.
– Hot subject, high stakes –
The dispute is a hot subject for France, and Chodron de Courcel, aged 64, is a high-profile figure in French banking and industry.
President Francois Hollande has raised the matter several times with US President Barack Obama, most recently over a dinner in Paris last week — even though Obama has made clear he cannot intervene in a judicial process.
France argued that the stakes are high also for the international financial system, bank lending and economic recovery in Europe and the knock-on effects of such penalties — which could also be applied to other banks under investigation — would be widespread.
The governor of the Bank of France, Christian Noyer, who says that the bank did nothing wrong, has also warned of systemic knock-on effects, as has the French former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet.
“Given the importance of this case and the importance of this bank… we are closely following the situation and we simply wish that this affair be handled in a proportionate, fair and objective manner,” the EU’s French internal market and services commissioner, Michel Barnier, said at a news conference in Washington.
The share price of BNP Paribas, which has provisioned only about 1.1 billion euros for the case, has not been unduly affected by the recent reports of looming US fines more than seven times that amount.