PARIS – France has opened an investigation into the personal fortune of Riad Salameh, director of the central bank of Lebanon in crisis, sources told AFP on Sunday.

The Paris financial prosecutor’s office has opened a preliminary investigation for criminal conspiracy and money laundering by Salameh, said a source close to the investigation and a judicial source, following a similar action by Switzerland.

His findings could shed light on the origins of the wealth of 70-year-old former banker Merill Lynch.

In office since 1993 and once hailed by political and economic leaders, Salameh has been repeatedly accused by the government of interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab of being responsible for the collapse of the Lebanese pound.

The Lebanese public suspect him and other senior officials of transferring money overseas during a 2019 uprising, when ordinary people were barred from doing so.

Lebanon has since been hit by an economic crisis which, according to the World Bank, is one of the worst since the 19th century.

Close to the powerful Hariri family, Salameh has been under investigation for months in Switzerland on suspicion of serious money laundering and embezzlement of Banque du Liban funds.

He also owns several properties in France and may have transferred money through the country.

One of the criminal complaints that prompted French prosecutors to get involved came from the Swiss foundation Accountability Now, daily The world reported.

Another was submitted by the anti-financial crime group Sherpa and by the Collective of victims of fraudulent and criminal practices in Lebanon, set up by savers devastated by the post-2019 crisis.

The French decision marks the beginning of “a mega-universal inquiry across Europe”, declared William Bourdon and Amélie Lefebvre, lawyers for Sherpa and the collective of savings.

“Huge money laundering operations will be examined, which should open every corner of the mafia which brought Lebanon to its knees,” they hope.

Their criminal complaint, seen by AFP, accuses Salameh and his relatives – his brother Raja, his son Nadi, a nephew and a central bank employee – of fraudulently building up a vast fortune in Europe.

The groups urge the justice system to investigate the massive flight of capital from Lebanon since the start of the crisis, as well as real estate purchases out of all proportion to the incomes of buyers and the roles played by financial intermediaries, tax havens and financial institutions. straw men.

Based in particular on reports from the Lebanese website Daraj.com and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the plaintiffs estimate that Salameh’s total global wealth is over $ 2 billion.

He disputes this figure, claiming that his assets have come from inheritances, his banking career and legitimate investments since taking office in 1993.

The investigation by French prosecutors is the latest in a series of investigations into the “ill-gotten gains” of foreign leaders – particularly from Africa or the Middle East.