Kerviel Film Hits Cinemas Just as Ex-Trader Finds Court Success

Jerome Kerviel

Jerome Kerviel.

Photographer: Dominique Faget/AFP via Getty Images
  • Film ‘The Outsider’ portrays young Kerviel as naive, earnest
  • Former trader says he hasn’t seen film because of bad memories

Jerome Kerviel has spent years insisting he wasn’t solely to blame for the record trading loss that almost sank Societe Generale SA. The French legal system that sentenced him to three years in jail is starting to agree.

In the space of two weeks, an employment tribunal awarded Kerviel about half a million dollars for unfair dismissal, while in another courtroom a prosecutor criticized Societe Generale for “multiple, long-standing” failings.

“The latest legal news adds grist to my mill,” Kerviel, 39, said in an interview at his lawyer’s office in Paris. “People are realizing that the case isn’t as clear as it seemed.”

Casting himself as a victim of a corrupt financial system has won Kerviel support over the years from people with backgrounds as varied as priests and left-wing politicians. In the early days, he inspired a comic book and fan club and featured on T-shirts. Just last week, “The Outsider,” a movie dramatizing his account of the events, hit French cinemas to mostly positive reviews. Kerviel, who suffers from phobias and panic attacks, said he can’t bring himself to watch the entire film because it brings back bad memories.

Prison Term

The former trader, who entered bogus trades and created fake e-mails to mask the size of the risks he was taking, maintains that his superiors looked the other way so long as he was making money. Societe Generale contends he acted alone and bears all the blame for the 4.9 billion-euro ($5.4 billion) loss. Until recently, the courts have shown Kerviel little sympathy.

He suffered repeated defeats as verdicts found him solely responsible, and served five months of a three-year prison term for abusing Societe Generale’s trust. In 2010, he even faced an order -- which was overturned four years later -- to repay the entire loss.

The son of an iron-worker and a hairdresser, Kerviel grew up in Pont l’Abbe, a small town in Britanny. He didn’t attend one of the elite universities from which French banks typically draw their top financial talent and worked his way up to the trading floor. During the chaotic hours in January 2008 after the bank unloaded his positions and announced the loss, then-Chief Executive Officer Daniel Bouton described him as a “terrorist.” 

The Pope

Kerviel’s fortunes began to turn in 2014, when France’s Supreme Court overturned the order that he repay the loss. The same year, he captured media attention by walking from Rome -- where he approached Pope Francis and shook his hand during a public appearance by the Pontiff in St. Peter’s Square -- to France. The next year, Nathalie Le Roy, the police officer who led probes into Kerviel in 2008 and 2012, said she had been pressured to focus only on evidence that would incriminate him.

A new civil trial -- which ran through June 17 -- will determine how much, if anything, Kerviel owes the bank, and whether Societe Generale must shoulder some of the blame. On the final day, Assistant Public Prosecutor Jean-Marie d’Huy criticized the bank for “a voluntary slackening of the rules with a view toward short-term gain.”  At a certain point, “negligence over a long stretch of time becomes intentional, ” he said. The court will rule on Sept. 23.

“All of a sudden it seems that the legal system has heard Jerome Kerviel’s arguments,” said Patricia Chapelotte, founder of communications firm Albera Conseil, which did work for the former trader leading up to his first trial in 2010.

Film Version

Marion Lambert-Barret, a lawyer for Societe Generale, said the recent developments are the result of “constant efforts from Kerviel’s defense team to make sure the case continues to hit the headlines.” The bank is appealing the labor court’s ruling and has maintained it wasn’t aware of Kerviel’s fraud.

“The Outsider,” based on a book by Kerviel, depicts him as a naive young man who gets pulled into a fast-paced world where huge gains -- or losses -- can be made with a few clicks of a mouse and victories are celebrated with champagne in strip clubs.

It portrays him as an assiduous trader, often the first in and last to leave, who hit the jackpot for the first time as markets tumbled following the July 2005 terror attacks in London. The film ends as the bank’s risk department finds out he amassed 50 billion euros in uncovered futures positions.

‘Not Proud’

While Kerviel’s version of the story is gaining traction, it’s “absurd” to contend he’s a victim of international finance, said Stephane Bonifassi, a criminal lawyer in Paris who’s not involved in the case. The former trader has to shoulder some responsibility, he said. 

In the interview, a frowning Kerviel, casually dressed and with a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard, said he prefers to read and watch as little as possible of the media coverage about him because it seems as though it’s “about someone else.” He has regrets, but plans to keep pushing to get the charges reversed.

“I never should have entered that industry, at least not gone into trading,” he said. “I’m not proud of what I did back then. I lost touch with reality.”

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