How is the public interest of a journalistic investigation measured? The dysfunctions and injustices that it reveals, the regulatory flaws that it exposes, but also, undoubtedly, with regard to major cases of fraud and tax evasion, the millions that it allows to be repatriated into the coffers of the State to finance public expenditure.

However, by this yardstick, the “Panama Papers” are about to explode the counters. When it was published in April 2016, this investigation of a then unprecedented global scale, conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its 108 partner media, including Le Monde, shook the planet. It had revealed the secret assets of heads of state, billionaires and criminals hidden in tax havens, behind the screen of shell companies.

Seven years and hundreds of audits later, France has already recovered 195.5 million euros in tax revenue for the state budget, according to a new count obtained by Le Monde from the general directorate of public finances ( DGFiP). This sum, which had evaporated in offshore arrangements, corresponds to 219 files of taxpayers, individuals or companies, caught in the net of the “Panama Papers”. It is the sum of all controls completed as of December 31, 2022, as well as regularizations carried out.

Club of five countries

The milestone of 200 million euros repatriated should be crossed this year. This is 70 million more than in the last count dated 2019, published in a parliamentary information report. And it is, for example, the equivalent of the budget requested from the government by Restos du coeur to enable all food aid associations to cope with the increase in precariousness.

These adjustments place France in the club of five countries to have recovered more than 100 million euros in taxes and penalties thanks to the “Panama Papers”, with the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Australia .

To identify suspect taxpayers, Bercy’s services relied not only on articles from Le Monde and its partners, but also on data put online by the ICIJ in its “OffshoreLeaks database”, which lists basic information on shell companies (shareholders, managers, intermediaries), access to which is not public in tax havens. Thanks to this “first basis of work”, the DGFiP was able to identify potential fraudsters, before carrying out more in-depth investigations to verify it.

For the moment, in France, the financial impact of the “Panama Papers”, with their myriad of shell companies registered in Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda or the Caymans in the 1990s and 2000s, therefore comes rank at the top of the rankings of major collaborative investigations into hidden offshore money.

A total “loot” of at least 450 million euros

This Panamanian “leak” follows, in terms of results, the investigations linked to the Swiss bank HSBC, involved in a vast scandal of undeclared bank accounts in the early 2000s. A first burst of confidential data was transmitted to the French tax authorities by the group’s former computer scientist Hervé Falciani in 2008, followed by a second salvo, revealed by the “SwissLeaks” investigation of 2015, also led by the ICIJ thanks to a set of data obtained by Le Monde . The DGFiP had decided to combine these two files which, between them, ultimately allowed Bercy to recover 243 million euros, by adding taxes and penalties.

How much will the hidden offshore “loot” recovered by France thanks to the “leaks” exploited by the ICIJ and its partners ultimately amount to? All inclusive, from “Offshore Leaks” (2013) to “Pandora Papers” (2021), the sum recovered today amounts to more than 450 million euros. But it will remain incomplete until all the checks have been completed.

However, in addition to the “Panama Papers”, the clock continues to tick in particular for the “Paradise Papers”, this investigation, published in November 2017, which revealed the tax optimization practices of political leaders, large fortunes and multinationals, all passed through the Appleby firm located in Bermuda. To date, the “operations carried out by the DGFiP” have made it possible to recover 15.3 million euros for 44 files, out of a total of 240 taxpayers audited.

Finally, the outcome of the “Pandora Papers” is not known to date. The DGFiP thus indicates that it is “currently examining the files of a little more than 150 taxpayers”, but that it “does not yet have the hindsight to quantify the implications of the procedures” initiated on the basis of these revelations.

Encourage regularization

Generally speaking, the investigations of the ICIJ and its partners have made it possible to put precise figures, names and diagrams on offshore finance and tax fraud and evasion practices that are now totally internationalized, which remain complicated to be understood without an overview – shell companies registered in several offshore jurisdictions are often stacked like Russian dolls, to prevent tracing the money trail and the origin of the funds in their bank accounts. Therefore, international cooperation between States, to exchange information on their respective taxpayers, has been strengthened.

“These investigations are of real interest to the DGFiP,” we indicate at Bercy. They can encourage certain taxpayers, concerned about their reputation, to come to regularization, as was the case during the Panama Papers affair. » Many files are subject to transmission to the courts, including when the information remains incomplete but supports a “presumption of tax fraud”.

Furthermore, these long-term investigations also inform State services on the nature of the circuits and tools allowing tax evasion, as well as, to a certain extent, on the extent of offshore tax fraud. Valuable information, since France is one of the States which has not yet carried out a quantified assessment of the sums which escape tax, and has just been invited to do so without delay by the Court of Auditors.