Bershidsky on Europe: France Fines Google

Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.

Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.

Eurozone retail sales jump.

Eurostat reported a unexpectedly big rise in eurozone retail sales in November. The indicator is up 1.4 percent, the most since December, 2009, with some of Europe's laggard economies making the biggest contributions to the growth. In Portugal, retail sales were up 3.1 percent, and in France, 2.1 percent. Coupled with Ireland's triumphant bond sale this week, the news prompted European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to declare proudly in Athens that bailout "programs work," and that the bloc is going to put the worst behind it in 2014. The sales data, however, are not that encouraging if put in context. In France, people have been increasing consumption ahead of a January VAT increase. In other countries, the base for growth was low following prolonged declines. Besides, Eurostat also reported unemployment numbers for November, finding that joblessness for the eurozone as a whole remained at 12.1 percent, with rises reported for Italy and Greece and no change in Spain's disastrous 26.7 percent rate. The signs of recovery may be great for the bond market, but they leave the people of Europe unimpressed, with unpredictable political consequences that could complicate the economic situstion this year.

France fines Google for privacy infringements.

France's National Comission for Data Protection fined Google $204,000, the biggest levy it is authorised to impose, for inadequate user privacy controls. The commission ruled that Google did not clearly inform users of its data use policies or obtain their consent before placing cookies on their computers. Last year, Google made $200,000 approximately every two minutes, but the fine is indicative of the mounting European pressure on U.S. internet companies to change the way they work with European user data, seen almost as a natural resource. This year, Europe and the U.S. will renegotiate the Safe Harbor agreement which allows U.S. companies to send European data across the Atlantic, potentially leading to the emergence of digital borders and then to changes in tax regimes for the likes of Google and Facebook.

Swiss court blocks transfer of client data to the U.S.

The Federal Administrative Court at St. Gallen, Switzerland, issued a 30-page ruling blocking the transfer of information about a U.S. client of Julius Baer private bank to U.S. authorities. The court also revealed the scope of the U.S. probe of Baer, saying American investigators suspected the bank of sheltering 400 wealthy U.S. clients from taxes. The bank supposedly suggested elaborate evasion schemes to them, inlcuding the use of code names, numbered accounts and Liechtenstein shell companies. The investigators rely on voluntary disclosures from Baer clients to build their case. Not all of the private bank's customers, however, are willing to give themselves up. While the Swiss tax authorities have cooperated with U.S. colleagues, Swiss courts may prove harder to persuade. They are the last bastion of Swiss banking privacy, undermined in recent months by most banks' willingness to work with the U.S. on uncovering tax evasion in exchange to immunity from prosecution.

Bollore heir becomes Havas chief executive.

Yannick Bollore, son of billionaire Vincent Bollore, has replaced Davis Jones as chief executive of Havas, the world's sixth biggest advertising and communications group. The Bollore group, known as a major corporate raider, is switching to the active management of its investments this year. Vincent Bollore is set soon to become chairman of Vivendi, the media group now in the process of selling of its telecom assets. With both father and son responsible for the running of major media companies in which the family holds stakes, talk of a Vivendi-Havas merger will inevitably start, though Vincent Bollore has denied such plans so far. In any case, the tough, forceful Bollores are now at the top of the French corporate world, executives to watch in 2014.

Danone sues Fonterra, stops buying its products.

French food giant Danone announced it was severing ties with New Zealand dairy producer Fonterra and suing it for damages caused by a massive product recall last year. In August, 2013, Fonterra warned that some of its baby formula could contain botulism bacteria. Danone and other buyers of Fonterra baby formula ingredients recalled hundreds of thousands of cans of the product from Asian markets. The warning turned out ot be a false scare, but it caused major damage to Danone and other formula producers: This product category is particularly vulnerable to reputational damage, and the companies are still struggling to recapture market share in China. Fonterra has denied liability for the losses, only provisioning $14 million last year to cover the costs of the recall. Danone's desire to get more through the courts is unerstandable, but suing is a dubious commercial decision: As the case progresses, customers are only going to be reminded of the recall. Besides, Fonterra, a huge cooperative owned by more than 10,000 dairy farmers, is taking flak for being extra cautious, a practice than can hardly hurt consumers.

(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at

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