US regulators have got their man. Georges Chodron de Courcel, long-serving chief operating officer of BNP Paribas, is off, ahead of the French bank's settlement over alleged sanctions breaches, which is rumoured to amount to $10bn.
The curious part, though, is that neither the sanctions violations, nor the role of the US prosecutors, are mentioned in the French bank's announcement. Instead, Chodron de Courcel, 64, will "retire" in order to comply with a new French banking law that limits the number of boardroom posts a individual can hold.
Thus the other directors of BNP can pay tribute to their colleague, and the man himself can speak of his pride in contributing to "this outstanding group". In this way, everybody can pretend this is unconnected to the almighty row with US officialdom, which has had the French president, François Hollande, complaining about an "disproportionate" fine and threatening to link the affair to US-EU trade talks.
Everybody can see the connection, of course. It has been rumoured for weeks that US regulators wanted to see Chodron de Courcel's resignation, even if he has not been accused of wrong-doing.
A understandable face-saving announcement? It's a bit late for that. By this stage, investors in BNP would surely appreciate a spot of candour. This affair has been cloaked in mystery for weeks. The supposed $10bn fine, which would put BNP's $1.1bn provision in the shade, has been neither confirmed nor denied. All we really know of the allegations is that they involve transacting with Iran and Sudan, making it impossible to judge whether $10bn would be a fair penalty or a money-grab by publicity-hungry US officials stung by criticism of their soft treatment of other banks.
Has Chodron de Courcel been retired to knock a few dollars off the bill? Or to allow BNP to escape a temporary ban on clearing dollars? Or to save more senior heads? All may be revealed in time, but these behind-the-scenes manoeuvres, with accompanying lobbying by politicians, hardly create the impression of proper process. It looks like both the US authorities and BNP are making it up as they go along.
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