Jérôme Kerviel – Modern-Day Prophet or Crazy Trader?

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On Saturday evening, a tired and Jérôme Kerviel arrived back to his native France only to be arrested

It was a premature end to his famous “walk against the tyranny of the markets”: a walk that was to take him from The Vatican to the Croisette during Film Festival Week in Cannes. As well as the forces of law and order, there was quite a presence of political and religious personnel. These included the Bishop of Gap and Embrun Monsignor Jean-Michel di Falco, Father Patrice Gourrier, curate of Saint-Porchaire in Poitiers and the national secretaries of the Parti du Gauche (party of the left) Alexis Corbière and Eric Coquerel, as well as several local activists.

The great ecumenical/political gathering was to welcome home to France the Breton ex-trader Jérôme Kerviel. For almost three months, the former Société Générale employee who was convicted for the loss of €4.8 billion to the bank in 2008 has been traversing Italy on foot.

On the 19th of February last, he had a brief audience with Pope Francis in Rome. Since then, Kerviel has been on a “walk against the tyranny of the markets” – the high point of his redemption, as he sees it.

In 2010 and again in 2012, he was convicted for abuse of trust, fraud and the introduction of fraudulent data into a computer system, after he took speculative positions outside of his remit at astronomical levels: €50 billion in January 2008, when he was rumbled. He was given a five-year prison sentence and ordered to pay €4.9 billion in damage and interests to the bank.

His case was presented to the media as a David-and-Goliath story by him and his lawyer David Koubbi. Maximising their sympathy vote and the mood of a general public that had grown highly wary of big banks, the articulate and photogenic young Breton with the green eyes was a hands-down winner with the French populace as against a big fat ugly old bank. Moreover, it was preposterous that a fantastical sum such €4.9 billion could possible be expected from just one very broke young man.

Suddenly Kerviel was everywhere in the French media – from Canal+ to Closer, the message was the same: Jérôme Kerviel had changed. He was a young man who had made a mistake. He was a hapless victim; someone who ended up playing a a big bank’s game in which he was the unwitting loser. He said that his former position as trader caused him “shame”. The bank still stands and continues to do what it has always done day after day whilst Kerviel, the repentant victim, is being told that he has to not only go to prison but to pay the healthy-looking bank that profits from the misery of others, a sum of money that no one person could possibly pay. A pound of flesh indeed.

Hi support base grew and grew and began to encompass both the far left and the far right. Religious leaders also latched onto someone who was becoming a symbol of the ordinary French citizen against the shadowy empires of high finance – the kind of institutions that do work that people don’t really understand and who condemn a man to virtual death if he steps out of line.

The extent of his support was such that the Vatican had to step in and formally deny that there was no private audience with the Pope: “If Jérôme Kerviel was able to briefly approach Pope Francis on the 19th of February during the public audience that is given every Wednesday on St Peter’s Square and make a brief exchange with him, the latter has never granted him a (private) audience.”

Kerviel’s line of argument in the media extended to him claiming that Société Générale not only knew that he was engaging in fraudulent activity, but that they were complicit in all of his actions:

“The bank knew in advance that a huge loss linked to the sub-prime crisis was inevitable. Finding a Jérôme Kerviel to take the hit was very useful.” So said Kerviel at the Court of Appeal, claiming that he had discovered that another section of the bank was covering his positions without his knowledge, in order for him to take the brunt of the oncoming sub-prime storm at full force.

Tyranny 1: Kerviel 0 - Jérôme Kerviel's walk ends in Menton with a spin in a police car

Tyranny 1: Kerviel 0 – Jérôme Kerviel’s walk ends in Menton with a spin in a police car

In any case, it all come to nothing in the end. The ex-trader is back in prison, where he is likely to stay for at least three years. He had threatened to remain in Italy after receiving a deadline to be back in France and to hand himself into police in the border town of Menton by “Sunday evening at the latest”.

After pausing in Ventimiglia (border town on the Italian side) to await a response from the President to a letter of appeal to grant immunity to witnesses that would back up his case, he walked the last few hundred metres under the tunnel that separate the two countries, accompanied (and hand-held) by priest Père Patrice Gourrier, supporters and a huge media scrum.

He was arrested and held in Menton police station on Sunday night and is now said to be in prison in Nice. Despite his huge support and his protestations, there is little sympathy for him from from government. Finance minister Michel Sapin branded him “a crook” who was “convicted” and who must “serve his sentence”.

The Second Coming will have to wait.

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