France pressures Swiss bank tax suspects

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France on Monday named 3,000 citizens suspected of evading taxes through Swiss bank accounts.

Paris -- France turned the heat on Monday on 3,000 citizens named on a list of suspected tax evaders with accounts in Swiss banks, rejecting charges it was offering an amnesty.

Budget Minister Eric Woerth revealed at the weekend that Paris had obtained the names of 3,000 French taxpayers with assets in three Swiss banks worth a total of about EUR 3 billion (CHF 4.5 billion, USD 4.3 billion).

The government believes at least some of the 3,000 are "very probably" tax evaders, who have until 31 December to pay any overdue tax, after which they will face a full tax audit.

"We are not bluffing, we have a list of 3,000 names," Woerth told France's Radio Classique on Monday, although he said the government would not publicly name the banks nor the individuals concerned.

Meanwhile the OECD in Paris, which has played a leading role in setting new standards for the exchange of information on suspect bank accounts, spoke of a worldwide "revolution" in cooperation to stop tax evasion under the cover of banking secrecy.

However, in France, left-wing opposition leaders accused President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government of providing amnesty for tax evaders.

"The government says 'We have names'. Well those people should be chased down, taxed, made to pay a penalty and taken to court," the Socialist leader Martine Aubry told France Info radio.

"Why give them until the end of the year to quietly settle up?" she asked.  "When ordinary French people fail to pay their gas bill, they face a penalty. The rules should apply to all."

But Woerth denied that offenders would escape responsibility.

"Of course there is no amnesty. When I call on people to square their situation with the authorities, that means they will pay tax. An amnesty is to pay no taxes, or very low taxes, which is not the case," he said.

The minister said most of the names were obtained from the Swiss tax authorities and others directly from the concerned banks.

The French list emerged two days after Switzerland signed a deal with Paris on exchanging data to help restrict tax evasion, meeting standards of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Under pressure to relax its strict banking secrecy laws, Switzerland has negotiated 13 such deals with foreign countries, as it seeks to be taken off the OECD's "grey list" of countries which do not meet standards of financial transparency.

On Monday, the OECD acknowledged the "substantial progress" made by Switzerland in an annual report welcoming international action against tax evasion.

"Virtually all countries are moving to eliminate strict bank secrecy for tax purposes," said a summary of the report, issued as ministers from 70 countries gathered in Mexico for three days of talks on fighting global tax evasion.

"What has happened is nothing less than a revolution," the OECD's Secretary-General Angel Gurria said in a statement.

"For decades it has been possible for taxpayers to hide income and assets from the taxman by abusing bank secrecy and other impediments to information exchange.

"What these developments show is that this will no longer be possible."

Swiss banking secrecy laws traditionally prevented banks from revealing any details of their clients, except in connection with criminal investigations.

Switzerland regards only tax fraud as a crime, with tax evasion treated as a more minor offence, a judicial distinction that does not exist in most other major economies.

But under agreements with France and others, Switzerland will now disclose banking data linked to any tax offence.

AFP / Expatica

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