French rightwing power broker jailed for tax fraud

Juliette MONTESSE
1 / 3
Patrick Balkany, left, arriving at the Paris courthouse on Friday with his lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti. Balkany was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud

A French court on Friday jailed a rightwing power broker who has dominated politics in a wealthy suburb of Paris for decades, after convicting him of hiding millions of euros' worth of assets from the tax authorities.

The sentence handed down by a Paris court against Patrick Balkany, longtime mayor of Levallois-Perret, was one of the stiffest yet for a French politician convicted of tax fraud.

His wife and longtime deputy Isabelle Balkany, who attempted suicide in May, was given a three-year jail term but not placed under arrest.

In dramatic courtroom scenes, police arrested Balkany, 71, to begin serving his term as the verdict was being read out and his wife looked on. The pair were also banned from holding office for 10 years.

The trial had captivated much of France, where it was seen as a test of the ability of the courts to hold well-connected and long-established power players to account.

The Balkanys, who are close friends of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, also face a second verdict in October on more serious charges of money-laundering and corruption.

Patrick Balkany's lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti accused the court of trying to make an example of his client, a bombastic, cigar-chomping politician with a lavish lifestyle that appeared at odds with his reported income.

Dupond-Moretti slammed Balkany's jailing as a "totally useless, unacceptable humiliation" and vowed to appeal.

Convicts in such cases are usually allowed go free pending the outcome of their appeal, unless deemed a flight risk.

Isabelle Balkany said she was "shattered" by her husband's incarceration.

"We made mistakes like everyone when we were young politicians... but the punishment must be proportionate to the crime," she told the BFMTV news channel.

The Balkanys had been under investigation since 2013, when a former political ally told judges he had deposited millions of euros in a Swiss bank account controlled by Patrick Balkany.

The prosecution accused Patrick Balkany of being a "big tax fraudster" who was steeped "in an ocean of cash."

The couple were charged with hiding two luxury villas and other assets from the tax authorities and evading some four million euros ($4.4 million) in tax.

The presiding judge, in his ruling, said the offences of which the pair were convicted had "aggravated the longstanding erosion of trust in Republican values."

- Brought to school in a Rolls -

Left-wing opposition parties welcomed the verdict.

"The 'save the rich' collective has lost its mascot," Julien Bayou, spokesman for the Green party tweeted, calling it a "good day for equality before the tax system and the law."

But the far-right National Front suggested that Balkany was the victim of selective justice, noting that a former Socialist minister convicted of tax fraud, Jerome Cahuzac, had avoided jail.

The Balkanys always argued that their wealth was mainly inherited -- Isabelle's Tunisian Jewish father made a fortune in rubber production, while Patrick's father, an Auschwitz survivor, founded a luxury pret-a-porter chain in postwar Paris.

"It's not my fault if I was raised in a 3,000 square-metre townhouse in the 16th (arrondissement of Paris) and went to school in a Rolls!" Isabelle told Le Journal du Dimanche weekly in 2015.

The fraud investigation was the latest in a string of probes into the couple's finances over the years since Patrick Balkany first became mayor of Levallois-Perret, west of Paris, in 1983.

The Balkanys are veteran power players in rightwing politics, close in particular to Sarkozy, whose birthday parties at chic Paris restaurants they have attended.

Both have been convicted previously of conflicts of interest, and both were handed suspended prison sentences in 1996 for the personal use of municipal employees, including one who was employed as their private chauffeur.

Despite the whiff of scandal engulfing them, voters in Levallois kept returning them to power. For many years until 2017 Balkany also represented the Hauts-de-Seine region, where Levallois is situated, in the National Assembly.

jmo-sb-sjw-cb/js/rlp