Eva Joly does not look like Europe’s most successful fraud prosecutor, the scourge of French boardrooms for decades. She is more than half an hour late as she sweeps into a cafe in Montparnasse from a cold, wet, gray Paris morning. Her eyes smile over natty, red-rimmed spectacles as she introduces herself in quiet tones, holding on to a handshake throughout, and apologizes for her delayed arrival.
Now a leading figure in the French Green party and a member of the European Parliament, Joly is expected to run for president next year. To many she remains best known for her extraordinary eight-year investigation into the oil multinational Elf in the 1990s. It rocked France’s political, judicial and corporate elites as the unwavering Joly peeled away layers of fraud — from initial questions about a Gabonese subsidiary to myriad allegations of fraud and corruption at the highest level.
For her pains, Joly had to spend long periods shadowed by bodyguards after threats were made against her. Her successes caused such a stir that the director Claude Chabrol loosely based his film A Comedy of Power (L’ivresse du Pouvoir) on her battles with the French establishment.
Despite her 67 years, she is bristling with the same drive and determination, underpinned by a rare blend of political zeal and a lawyer’s attention to detail.
“I am not getting away from combating fraud,” she says. “This is why I am going into politics. It’s another way of fighting fraud in the interests of ordinary people, trying to prevent the oligarchy taking all the power and all the money ... We have been living in a kind of collective illusion that this is how the world is — that the poor shall always be poor, ordinary people shall be squeezed to the benefit of a kind of oligarchy.”
Polemical and incendiary asides follow thick and fast. She talks about Joseph Cassano, the former financial engineering executive at bailed-out US insurer American International Group (“What kind of good does he do humanity? None.”); WikiLeaks (“It shows it is possible to tell people what really happened. This is prevention of fraud.”); of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha (“He laundered millions and he used London. The banks that received this money are getting away with it.”); and of the UK’s non-dom tax arrangements for the super-rich (“This is a serious hole in European tax cooperation.”).
Her late arrival means much of the interview must be carried out in a taxi as she races across Paris to catch a train to Brussels, where she is campaigning for tougher EU action against tax havens. Later in the week she will fly to Tunisia to offer advice on how a new regime might track down the assets of former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled amid popular uprising and corruption allegations last month.
While her focus now is increasingly returning to France and the political arena, recent years have seen Joly’s attentions extend to Iceland, where she was recruited to advise the government’s special prosecutor, Olafur Hauksson, on criminal investigations triggered by the tiny country’s spectacular financial meltdown in the autumn of 2008.
So large and far-reaching are allegations of fraud and corruption that the investigation has been described as the largest white-collar crime inquiry ever attempted. Much of the suspect behavior took place in London, and may have been unwittingly financed by hundreds of thousands of UK retail depositors, who rushed to set up online deposit accounts with Icelandic banks four years ago. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is working closely with Hauksson’s team.