Kerviel's sentence has made him a hero | Pierre Haski

The public weren't sure where their sympathies lay in the case of the French rogue trader – but his absurd sentence changed that

Ever since Jérôme Kerviel, the "rogue trader" as the media call his type, made headlines in January 2008, the French never knew what to make of him. Genius or villain? Criminal or Robin Hood? Guilty or scapegoat?

The verdict announced on Tuesday had at least one advantage: it made everyone laugh. The sentencing of the 33-year-old man to pay €4.9bn compensation to his former employer, Société Générale, (in addition to three years in jail) was so ludicrous that the near-tragedy of 2008 suddenly turned into a farce.

Commentators quickly calculated that with his current salary, it would take him some 177,000 years to repay the bank, and pointed to the fact that only three or four people in the country (including L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, another current hero of the judicial scene in France) could pay such an amount and still sleep at home. Even serious analysts like Maître Eolas, the anonymous lawyer turned blogger, commented on Twitter that it was equivalent to "compensation for the loss of 163,000 children" by standard court rates.

Société Générale itself probably felt the impact of the public ridicule and said last night it was renouncing its demand for the former trader to pay that amount.

Past the laughter, a question remains in place. What to make of Kerviel? No one was surprised the trader was found guilty: he himself admitted part of the responsibility in the disaster that struck the company. But there is undoubtedly a very large consensus in the country believing that the Société Générale management played an equal, if not greater, part in the risk-taking behaviour of its trader. And, more widely, that Kerviel and Société Générale are just part of a system gone crazy, as the later financial crisis showed.

The problem is that Kerviel and his star lawyer, Olivier Metzner, failed to convince the judges that his superiors had allowed him to engage in his risky business, or why, if he was covered, he had to manipulate the computer systems to hide his above-the-roof commitments.

These legal niceties were not enough to appease the French public's sense of outrage since the verdict, which turned Kerviel into a scapegoat in their eyes – whatever his personal responsibilities.

You don't need to be a hardline Trotskyist like former presidential candidate and postman Olivier Besancenot, of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, to believe that Kerviel is just a product of a system gone out of control. That there are probably thousands of potential Kerviels in French and global banks, not all of them with the skills and guts of the real one, but certainly sharing his business culture.

How could it be, people have been asking, that Société Générale was found guilty by the bank's regulatory institutions of not having enough control over procedures within the bank, but that no one was sued afterwards? How can a €50bn risk and a €5bn loss be blamed on just one man?

Despite all the speeches made by Nicolas Sarkozy and other G7, G8 or G20 leaders in the past two years on the "refoundation of capitalism", it is still impossible to have the high-profit-maximum-risk culture of the financial world taken to court. It is safer to isolate one man and put all the blame on him.

Interestingly, a book came out in France on the day of the verdict written by Hugues Le Bret, the communication director of Société Générale at the time of the crisis and a close ally of former CEO Daniel Bouton. Le Bret resigned as CEO of a Société Générale branch in order to publish the book, because of his minute-by-minute account of the January 2008 events.

The account is particularly embarrassing for Sarkozy, who is accused of having reacted with anger when he realised he had not been informed by Bouton of the crisis when it appeared. For 10 days, Le Bret, writes, Sarkozy behaved "not as a statesman trying to save one of the country's great banks on the brink, but as a man who felt humiliated having been sidestepped in the management of the crisis, and who made it a personal affair". And 10 days, he adds, is a long time in such a crisis.

On Tuesday, I took part in a debate on a French TV programme about the verdict and faced a rightwing editorialist. He was arguing that if the Société Générale management had to be taken to court along with the trader, then "all banks around the world should be sued as well". My answer was "chiche" – which, translated into English, means "let's go for it".

It didn't make him laugh.


Pierre Haski

The GuardianTramp

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