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French 'spies' after Swiss bank secrets?

French officials are trying to play down the trial, slated for June 17 in Zurich, Switzerland, of two French undercover customs agents arrested by Swiss police on charges of "economic espionage."

The agents, Bernard Rui and Pierre Schultz, were arrested in Basel, Switzerland, on April 15 for allegedly trying to buy Swiss bank secrets. A series of spectacular mini-strikes by unions representing French customs workers led to the agent's release pending trial, but only after the French government had posted a $30,000 bond.

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The arrests were part of an elaborate trap set by Swiss police, and the case provides a fascinating insight into the quiet espionage war that has been going on here in the past several months over the issue of Swiss bank secrecy.

The stakes are not small. Roughly 40 percent of the jobs in Switzerland involve banking. Foreign holdings in Swiss banks are estimated to total around The French estimate that anywhere from 200,000 to 600,000 French citizens have accounts in Swiss banks -- many of them illegal under French law.

The major attraction of Swiss banking, of course, is secrecy. Swiss numbered accounts began in the 1930s when Nazi Gestapo agents tried to identify Jewish bank accounts outside Germany by depositing small amounts of money in the suspects' names. If the bank accepted a deposit for one of suspects, it was proof that the suspect had an account. The unlucky account holder was then arrested in Germany and literally held for ransom in a concentration camp.

Since then, Swiss numbered accounts have served a variety of less meritorious purposes. The french are particularly concerned that every time it looks as though the left will gain power in France, there is a massive exodus of capital across the border.

French customs agents still talk about intercepting a truck filled to overflowing with French bank notes in May, 1968. The money represented the financial reserves of some of Paris' leading department stores.

The current flare-up between France and Switzerland goes back to 1976, when a computer technician working for a Swiss bank corporation sold a list of 2,500 names of French account holders to French customs for a price that is believed to have totaled nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

The names were turned over to the DNED (Direction National des Enquete Douanieres), a secret investigative unit that specializes in tracking down illegal money transfers. Hundreds of French clients were investigated, and immediately began complaining that the secrecy of Swiss banking had turned into a myth.

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Unfortunately, French customs had begun by investigating the most influential candidates first. The Swiss were upset.

In order to strike back, Swiss bank officials asked their French clients for photocopies of subpoenas resulting from the investigations. Signatures on the documents revealed that most of the investigations were being carried out by five customs inspectors. Swiss police drew up arrest warrants for all five, in case any of them returned to Switzerland. One of the five was Bernard Rui.

The trap for Mr. Rui was set, using a jovial computer technician for the Union des Banques Suisses, named Hermann Stroehlin. Mr. Stroehlin was married to a Frenchwoman and owned a house in France. When police found that he worked for a Swiss bank, they asked him if he would like to sell secret information. He refused.

Last January, Mr. Stroehlin, who had already informed his superiors of the French offer, contacted the French police, explaining that he wanted to make some extra money. He explained that he no longer worked in the bank's computer section, but he had a friend who did.

A meeting was set for April 10 at the Sheraton Hotel restaurant in Zurich. Bernard Rui handled the negotiations and Pierre Schultz acted as an interpreter. Mr. Stroehlin introduced the two inspectors to his friend, who turned out to be Ralf Elsener, security chief of the canton of Zurich.

When messrs. Rui and Schultz showed up in Basel for a later meeting, Mr. Stroehlin was absent. Mr. Elsener suggested that the two inspectors have a drink. They had just sat down at a table when a dozen Swiss police in unifrom surrounded them.

The only incriminating evidence was a scribbled note found in Mr. Rui's pocket, explaining French regulations authorizing payment of up to $5,000 for information concerning money transfers that violate French law. Nevertheless, mr. Schultz was held in a Swiss jail until May 9, and Mr. Rui was kept locked up until May 13. Theoretically, both are supposed to return to Zurich for the June 17 trial.

Regardless of what happens at the trial, the basic conlict between Swiss banking secrecy and the French government's determination to control the finances of its citizens, remains unresolved.

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