France, Germany tax evasion inquiries target Swiss bank clients


PARIS — France and Germany have launched a series of raids on the offices and homes of bank officials and their wealthy customers in an ongoing inquiry aimed at cracking down on those who evade taxes by using Swiss banks.

On Tuesday, German police searched the homes of an unspecified number of Credit Suisse bank customers suspected of tax evasion. In France, detectives raided the offices of Swiss banking and finance house UBS in three major cities: Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg.

Officials in both countries refused to say whether the raids were coordinated or coincidental.

Switzerland has long prided itself on its banking secrecy, entrenched in law since 1934, making it a criminal offense to reveal a client’s identity.

Until recently, some governments tolerated the creative efforts of wealthy citizens who stash their fortunes in foreign tax havens. Today, as European governments face mounting debt crises, some have begun clamping down on Switzerland’s uber-secretive financial institutions.

Forcing wealthy French to pay their fair share of taxes has been a leading issue since Socialist Francois Hollande came to power in May.

The homes of several high-ranking UBS employees in Strasbourg were also searched Tuesday, according to a French police source. The French prosecutor’s office refused comment, saying the investigation was ongoing. The bank said it would cooperate.

Authorities here have cast a spotlight on UBS since 2009, when the U.S. and Swiss governments reached a settlement in the United States’ efforts to get the names of thousands of wealthy Americans suspected of evading taxes by banking with the Swiss giant.

In Germany, tax officials are investigating about 5,000 clients of Credit Suisse over Bermuda-based life insurance products used by some wealthy clients to avoid taxes. The bank insisted it stopped selling the products in 2009.

Credit Suisse struck a deal with the German authorities in September, agreeing to pay more than $180 million to end an investigation of tax dodging allegations.

Norbert Walter-Borjans, finance minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said that despite a recently signed tax treaty between Germany and Switzerland, the tax evasion inquiry would continue.

Investors from France, Germany and Britain represent the largest market in Europe for Swiss private banks. Britain and Germany have signed deals with Switzerland aimed at legalizing undeclared assets in Swiss banks by introducing a withholding tax. France has refused to sign such agreements, preferring instead to pursue criminal investigations.

Willsher is a special correspondent.