French whistleblowers get new legal protections

Palais de Justice, Nice

As of 1 February, the new French whistleblower protection law is in effect. Its provisions protects French employees of private companies from sanction or dismissal “for having reported or testified in good faith, facts constituting an offense or a crime of which he was aware in the exercise of its functions”.

A similar provision took effect to protect civil servants in France’s considerable public sector from retaliation after reporting illegal activities.

Under both laws a whistleblower who took part in any alleged offenses is  granted immunity from prosecution so long the whistleblower’s actions only amounted to an attempted offense or if the whistleblowing action prevented the crime from actually occurring. Where the whistleblower has actively taken part in some of the criminal actions but acts in time to stop the commission of the final criminal act, any sentence  decided by a court will be halved.

Why is this a landmark for France when whistleblower status has existed for decades in other countries and in the US since 1778?

Firstly, compliance with international accounting, money laundering, anti-terror laws and banking regulations — and cross-border enforcement of them — means that New York or London listed companies located in France had to find a legal way to implement a whistleblowing policy for French employees, this in spite of the lack of a local legal regime and the protestations of the CNIL, the national data privacy authority.

Secondly, it should be understood that France has a culture in which reporting of “private affairs”  to authorities is highly taboo. The chastening World War II experience (laws requiring citizen cooperation and informing to fascist Vichy and Occupation forces) meant that any institution of a new legal frame for anonymous reporting to the authorities carried a heavy burden of proving its usefulness versus possible abuse.

Thirdly, this was also an excellent opportunity for the Ecologists, part of the governing coalition to extend whistleblowing protection for environmental law violations – perhaps the most satisfying result of the change for ordinary citizens.

Unlike the US whistleblowing provisions, the new French law does not provide for pecuniary rewards for whistleblowers and the immunity from prosecution provisions only apply to to natural persons. It also allows associations to join criminal proceedings as civil parties – another advantage for environmentalists that has not existed in the past.

In any case, it is a step forward for revealing corrupt practices and protecting honest citizens.

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