Balkany dynasty: Local power couple manoeuvres to hold on to posh Paris suburb
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For nearly four decades, Patrick Balkany has been the centre-right mayor of the upscale Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, with his wife Isabelle often acting as his deputy. But last year they were convicted of tax fraud and money laundering, resulting in jail sentences and barring them from running in the city’s March elections. They have since named an heir-designate, whom some hope – and others fear – is a way to prolong the Balkany dynasty.
It’s Friday morning and the local farmers’ market in front of Levallois-Perret’s majestic town hall is buzzing with activity.
“Shall we go get the oysters now?” a sophisticated-looking middle-aged woman asks her friend, while they stroll through the neat rows of white tents that have been set up in the town hall’s courtyard. Although this town of 63,500 inhabitants touches the western fringes of the French capital, Levallois-Perret – with its perfectly trimmed tree-lines, pretty flowerbeds and cobblestoned pedestrian streets – is not like any other Parisian suburb. Here, inhabitants feel safe to leave their shopping caddies unattended and their bicycles unlocked while going about their weekly shopping.
But Levallois-Perret has not always been the suburban dream it is today. Up until 1983, when Patrick and Isabelle Balkany first became the city’s first couple, it was a run-down industrial town dominated by factories, low-rent social housing (known as HLM in France), and a diverse, mainly working-class population. Since then, the couple has orchestrated a massive overhaul of the city – cleaning up its streets and squares, replacing factories and HLMs with smart offices and apartment blocks, and embellishing the overall landscape with parks, trees and flowers. Under the Balkanys, Levallois-Perret has developed into a flourishing hub of comfort and security, and is known nationwide for its exceptional citizen services: free local buses, discount trips to far-away destinations and lavish Christmas baskets – containing foie gras and champagne – donated to the elderly with great fanfare at an annual ceremony. In the 1990s, Levallois-Perret became the first city in France to install video surveillance cameras and arm its local police officers.
“The mayor has transformed this city, which was nothing but an industrial wasteland before he came to power,” Nathalie, a resident who only wanted to give her first name, told FRANCE 24. “He and his team have built this city, in every sense and meaning of the word.”
'Far from everyone likes them here'
But the couple’s management of the city has had its share of controversies. For years now, Levallois-Perret has topped the list as France’s most indebted city per capita, and the couple have regularly been subject to legal woes. In 1996 they were convicted of the "misappropriation of public funds for personal gain" after putting some of their household workers on the municipal payroll. In September last year, they were convicted of tax fraud involving private assets and, a month later, for money laundering. Despite appealing their convictions, a Paris court in December barred them from running in the March 15 elections. Since then, Levallois-Perret has been thrown into a full election frenzy.
“This is the first time in almost 40 years that we have an election without Balkany, so everyone has jumped on the opportunity,” says Frédéric Léger, who is representing a long list of leftist parties in the elections. Since the Balkanys arrived in the city 37 years ago, they have only lost a single mandate – against conservative politician Olivier de Chazeaux back in 1995.
“But [de Chazeaux] only lasted one term because he decided to reduce the number of presents handed out to the seniors,” Léger scoffs, explaining that even though the Balkanys may have a multitude of accusations hanging over their heads – including persistent rumours of cronyism – “most people seem to have less of a problem with that than with having their advantages taken away”.
“Far from everyone likes them here; it’s just that those who don’t prefer to stay quiet about it,” he says, noting that while Balkany scored 51 percent in the first round of the 2014 elections the abstention rate was 36.6 percent.
“That kind of speaks for itself,” he says.
‘Heir’ sounds like we’re dead
By every entrance leading into the farmers' market, dozens of campaigners in different-coloured vests compete in waving down inhabitants to hand out election leaflets and pitch their candidates. In January, the campaigning in Levallois-Perret got so out of hand that the government issued a decree to stop campaigners from disregarding the country’s terror threat guidelines by gathering outside schools to pitch to parents waiting for their children.
“It’s been a bit crazy. I think people are starting to get enough of it,” Léger says.
The blue vests seem to outnumber the other campaigners by far – at least a dozen can be seen circulating through the market, and their leaflets have been handed out to the point that some of them have now spilled onto nearby sidewalks. “The blue team” represents Agnès Pottier-Dumas and her running mate David-Xavier Weiss, who were recently appointed by the Balkanys as their designated heirs to take over town hall.
“Oh I don’t like the word ‘heir’, because it makes it sound as if we’re already dead,” Isabelle Balkany jokingly tells FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview after learning through the grapevine that one of its journalists is in Levallois-Perret reporting on the local elections.
Pottier-Dumas, 34, is a Balkany veteran who joined the couple’s political machine 15 years ago – first as Patrick Balkany’s parliamentary assistant and most recently as the town hall’s chief of staff. Pottier-Dumas did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but has previously told French media that she in no way should be regarded as a “Balkany puppet”.
Ever since the Balkanys were forced to withdraw their election bid, they have thrown their full weight behind their young protégé in a bid to help her win: Isabelle Balkany can often be seen campaigning alongside Pottier-Dumas, and posts almost daily about the candidate on her social media accounts using the hashtag #TeamBalkany.
“#TeamBalkany means that she’s a part of … I mean, it’s a label that reassures some inhabitants,” Isabelle Balkany says, with a nod to the many Levalloisiens who have supported her and her husband over the years.
Pottier-Dumas also regularly posts photos of herself kissing and hugging the Balkanys, but has so far eschewed the application of the #TeamBalkany hashtag to her posts. On the front door of her campaign headquarters – located just a few steps from the town hall – a signed letter from Patrick Balkany has been taped onto the glass. In the letter, Balkany expresses his “profound sadness” at having been prevented from taking part in the upcoming elections himself, but pleads for the city’s inhabitants to vote for Pottier-Dumas to “preserve” the city’s high quality of life.
💕💕💕— Isabelle Balkany (@ibalkany) February 2, 2020
Lorsque la loyauté, la confiance, l'amitié, l'affection et la tendresse réchauffent le cœur et apaisent l'âme...@AgnesPottierD @DXWEISS92300 #LevalloisAuCoeur #TeamBalkany #Levallois pic.twitter.com/NtuATCV5pS
Inside her campaign office, a large, framed portrait of Levallois-Perret’s mayoral couple hangs centred on the wall, and large stacks of Pottier-Dumas campaign leaflets – headlined “le bien-vivre” (the good life), the Balkanys’ own slogan for many decades – have been placed on pretty much everything else with a flat surface.
FRANCE 24 was turned away after requesting an interview with one of the members of the Pottier-Dumas campaign crew.
“We’re busy, we don’t have time for you,” they said.
Nathalie, a Levalloisienne for the past two years and a fervent supporter of the Balkany couple, says that there’s no question that she will cast her vote for Pottier-Dumas come March 15. “She’s worked alongside Patrick Balkany,” she says. “I like her political programme, it respects what’s made Levallois so successful. She (Pottier-Dumas) intends to continue the important work carried out by Isabelle and Patrick, and from which each and every Levalloisien benefits from in a calm, green, relaxing atmosphere.”
Chalet in the Alps
Delphine, a 40-year-old Levallois-Perret native who declined to give her real name for fear of repercussions, says she has no confidence in the Balkanys' preferred town hall candidate whatsoever.
“I have one dream, and that is that the Balkanys leave Levallois. But now they’ve put together a team of puppets to replace them. If [Pottier-Dumas] wins, they will stay in power, ruling from behind the scenes.”
Delphine, whose family has lived in Levallois-Perret for generations, says she feels disgusted by the way the city has changed since the Balkanys arrived in the early 1980s.
“It used to be a very diverse and authentic city, but the people who used to live here have since been chased away and what’s been considered ‘ugly’ has been flattened and replaced.”
“It’s a city only for the white, upper-middle class now.”
Delphine also denounces the preferential, bribe-like system the couple have been accused of applying to control Levallois-Perret citizens.
“They buy people’s votes with their ‘amazing’ presents, but what people don’t realise is that they’re just indebting Levallois even more. And if you show that you’re against them in any way, they can punish you by not giving you that nursery spot, or that apartment, that you’ve been waiting for.”
“That’s not democracy,” she says, but admits that she, too, has – and will most likely continue to – benefit from the advantages of living in the city.
“Have you heard of le Chalet Les Abeilles?,” she asks with a smirk. “I’ve been there. It’s the Levallois’s own ski chalet in Chantemerles in the Alps, where you can go for a very cheap sum if you’re a Levalloisien. It has a restaurant, disco, bar, hammam (spa) and everything. But you need connections in town hall to secure a spot.”
Today, she enjoys a near half-price discount for her aqua aerobics classes at the local gym. “I pay around €250 a year, and non-Levalloisiens pay about double.”
But, she says, “deep inside I feel really guilty about it because it means I’m actually participating in this mafia-like system”.
Jean-Charles Deniau, a journalist and author of the book “Balkany, l’impuni” (Balkany, the unpunished), says that “the Balkany system” is a real problem for Levallois-Perret – and that it would take a lot for the city to rid itself of the couple’s legacy even if they no longer hold official positions.
“The Balkanys are political beasts who have politics in their blood – they won’t give up [their power] that easily. For them, Dumas-Pottier is a puppet whose strings they will try to pull.”
“She was created by the Balkanys, she owes them everything she is today, and so she has an interest in staying loyal to them. But time will tell, of course.”
On March 4, an appeals court ruled to lower Patrick Balkany’s four-year jail term for tax fraud to three years, and confirmed Isabelle Balkany’s three-year prison sentence. It also banned them from holding office for the next 10 years.
Next month, a court will rule on their appeals regarding the money laundering case. While Isabelle Balkany has not yet spent a day behind bars due to a recent suicide attempt, her husband spent almost six months in jail before he was transferred to house arrest in February after suffering from various health problems.
Isabelle Balkany declined to speculate on how she and her husband plan to stay involved with the city and its inhabitants in the future.
“Step by step,” she says. “Step by step.”
France's 2020 municipal elections take place on March 15 and March 22.
The municipal candidates in Levallois-Perret are:
Agnès Pottier-Dumas (Les Républicains, The Union of Democrats and Independents)
Arnaud de Courson (Miscellaneous right)
Sylvie Ramond (Miscellaneous right)
Maud Bregeon (The Republic on the Move)
Lies Messatfa (Mouvement Radical)
Frédéric Léger (Green party, Socialist Party, French Communist Party, France Unbowed party, Génération.s party).
Philippe Coste (National Rally)
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