French power couple lose money laundering appeal

Paris (AFP) –


A French political power couple lost their appeal Wednesday against a money laundering conviction, capping a fall from grace spurred by accusations they illegally pocketed millions of euros in public funds while in office.

Patrick and Isabelle Balkany, right-wing politicians who for years governed the chic Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, were sentenced to prison terms of five and four years respectively.

But they were not ordered behind bars immediately pending an appeal to France's highest court. Patrick Balkany had been released to house arrest in February because of health problems.

The two had already lost in March an appeal against tax fraud convictions after they were found guilty of using offshore accounts to hide at least 13 million euros ($14.4 million) in assets from the tax authorities, including luxury villas in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh and in the West Indies.

On Wednesday, the appeals court confirmed the seizure of assets as well as the payment of one million euros ($1.1 million) in damages, saying the couple had implemented a system of "persistent fraud".

Patrick Balkany, 71, who appeared in the Paris courtroom without his wife, made no comment after the decision.

His lawyer Romain Dieudonne said he had five days to decide on a further appeal, while his wife's lawyer Pierre-Olivier Sur told reporters the ruling was "excessive."

The jail terms handed down last year -- extremely rare for French politicians -- were widely heralded as proof that the legal system no longer shirks from holding the powerful to account.

Patrick Balkany was first elected mayor of Levallois-Perret in 1983 and also held a seat in parliament for many years.

A larger-than-life figure with a penchant for cigars, he was a close friend of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the late rocker Johnny Hallyday, and was credited with spurring an economic revival in the city.

But critics said the couple was making themselves rich at the same time, and prosecutors opened an investigation in 2013 after a former political ally told judges he had deposited millions of euros for the couple in Swiss bank accounts.

The couple had 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 clothing chain in post-war Paris.

Both had already been handed suspended prison sentences in 1996 for the personal use of municipal employees, including one employed as their private chauffeur.