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With prison deadline looming, rogue trader returns to France

MENTON, France--Rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, who has spent two months walking from Rome to protest “the tyranny of the markets,” returned to France Sunday at midnight where he is due to start a three-year prison term.

“I am walking and I am going back to France,” Kerviel said after leaving his hotel in the Italian border town of Ventimiglia dressed in hiker's clothing and a backpack.

The 37-year-old, who brought one of Europe's biggest banks, France's Societe Generale, to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008, casts himself as a simple soul caught up in an orgy of greed.

He spent the last two nights in Ventimiglia, refusing to return to serve his sentence until President Francois Hollande intervened in his case.

But as the clocked ticked down to the midnight deadline at which he had to check into a French police station, he took up his trek again, remaining cagey on whether he planned to show up for the appointment.

But at the Menton border crossing Kerviel was met by two French police officers in plain clothes who whisked him away by car.

“The fight will go on no matter what happens,” Kerviel had told journalists earlier, before stopping at a church and a pizzeria surrounded by dozens of supporters of the fresh-faced man who has become an unlikely hero to some critics of the banking system.

“I have never been a fugitive, I have always taken responsibility for my actions.”

'Serious failings'

The former trader says he is not seeking a pardon, but has asked Hollande to grant immunity to potential witnesses who could testify in his favor.

Kerviel said he wanted to detail to Hollande “the serious failings” that led to his conviction, following the loss of 4.9 billion euros (US$6.7 billion) through wildly risky trades.

Contacted by AFP, Hollande's office said no meeting was on the agenda and stressed that the president would “respect the decisions taken by French courts.”

“I will present myself to the first police officer I see,” Kerviel said as he neared the border, accompanied by supporters and cameras.

“I have not lost, I've spent a beautiful day with people close to me, I'm happy, I'm free, I'll turn myself in to the police and the authorities.”

It was unclear what made him change his mind and head toward the border.

The Paris prosecutor's office had warned in a statement that if Kerviel did not show up to start serving his sentence by midnight Sunday “he will be considered a fugitive” and a Europe-wide warrant would be issued for his arrest.

Cause Celebre

Kerviel was tramping through Tuscany when France's top appeals court in March upheld his 2010 conviction for breach of trust, forgery and entering false data in relation to unauthorized deals that nearly brought his former employer down.

The ruling left Kerviel, who served 41 days in pre-trial detention in 2008, liable to be imprisoned at any time within five years of the verdict.

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Former trader Jerome Kerviel, center, surrounded by his lawyer David Koubbi, right, and priest Patrice Bourrier, speaks during a press conference in front of his hotel in Ventimiglia, Italy, near the French border, on Sunday, May 18.

(AP)

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