PARIS - Adding to a raft of investigations worldwide, Paris prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into possible fraud over the pollution-cheating software installed in diesel engines by German auto giant Volkswagen, a judicial source said Friday.
The French investigation opened following information received from an elected official in the Paris region and also from public statements about the scandal that has engulfed VW, the source said.
Volkswagen has admitted 11 million vehicles worldwide are equipped with the software that dupes pollution emission testing. The French probe into suspected "aggravated" deception will only concern cars sold in France.
Nearly one million diesel cars of the Volkswagen brands - VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat - have been sold in France in recent years fitted with the pollution-cheating software, according to VW's French unit.
French Environment Minister Segolene Royal meanwhile denounced Volkswagen's use of the software as "a form of theft from the taxpayer and the state" in that the vehicles concerned benefited from state subsidies towards the purchase of "clean" vehicles.
But Royal added that countries should not tar other auto firms with a cheating brush.
"It is not because one company - Volkswagen - has cheated that everyone should be suspected," said Royal, adding that French giants Peugeot Citroen and Renault had "guaranteed they did not have any cheat devices." The French probe into the degree to which the affair may have threatened public health was launched by public health and anti-corruption authorities.
The World Health Organization in 2012 declared emissions from diesel engines to be carcinogenic.
Some of the vehicles fitted out with the pollution cheat software were found to emit 40 times the legally sanctioned levels of air pollutants called nitrogen oxides.
Raft of cases
Alongside the Paris prosecutor's investigation, several complaints have been announced in France by an environmental association and the French owners of Volkswagen diesel cars as well as shareholders in the VW auto group.
Judicial investigations over the Volkswagen scandal have also been launched in several countries, including the United States and Germany itself.
EU authorities are also pushing for an EU-wide investigation amid claims several governments had long been aware something was amiss amid lax testing regimes.
EU Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska on Thursday called for "coordinated action" to tackle the issue.
The growing fallout from the scandal, which forced the resignation of Martin Winterkorn as the auto giant's chief executive last week, threatens to cost the world's largest auto manufacturer by sales tens of billions of dollars in ensuing legal wrangles.
The company already faces class action lawsuits in the United States which could cost up to an estimated 18 billion dollars while, in Germany, public prosectors have launched actions in Brunswick and Ingolstadt, where VW subsidiary Audi is based.
Sweden has threatened to bill Volkswagen for millions of dollars for the pollution the affected cars would have caused on the road away from controlled test conditions in which the cheat devices operated.
Volkswagen's share price has taken a battering as a result - in Friday afternoon trading its share price stood at 92.04 euros in Frankfurt, down 4.62 percent on the session.
In March, its shares had touched 255 euros.
VW said Thursday it has hired US legal firm Jones Day to conduct an independent probe into the affair that has rocked the industry. The probe is expected to take several months.
Elsewhere, Swiss authorities said they were introducing from Monday a temporary ban on registering diesel vehicles of the Volkswagen group for the first time in Switzerland that were built between 2009 and 2014.
Switzerland estimates 130,000 cars are already on its roads fitted with Volkswagen's devices designed to manipulate test data on diesel vehicles.
Meanwhile in Greece, Volkswagen importer Kosmocar on Friday said over 7,200 VWs and over 1,800 Audis are "exclusively equipped with EA189 Diesel engines", which has the pollution-cheating software.