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Barely two months into his five-year prison sentence for money laundering, the mayor of the posh Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret this week launched a surprise reelection bid – from his jail cell.
The scene was described as “surreal” when the mayor, Patrick Balkany, 71, on Monday announced his intention of running in the March 2020 local elections. He had been sentenced in September to four years in prison for fiscal fraud, and then in October to another five years for money laundering.
Scène surréaliste hier soir en mairie de Levallois. Tous les élus majorité réunis en salle du conseil. Patrick Balkany appelle depuis sa cellule. Il annonce sur haut parleur qu’il sera candidat aux municipales…
— Laurent Valdiguié (@Valdiguie) December 3, 2019
The message to run was relayed by his wife and deputy, 72-year-old Isabel Balkany – who was handed suspended sentences in the two trials – at a closed-door town hall meeting.
“I confirmed that Patrick wishes to head the list of local election candidates,” she tweeted the day after the meeting, while also rejecting a journalist’s claims that her husband had announced the news himself to a stunned town-hall crowd over the speakerphone. “FALSE, useless to publish before phoning to verify,” she blasted angrily.
FAUX, nul de publier avant de tel pour vérifier. Réunion sur le Budget Le Maire a appelé pour remercier élus et administration N’a pas évoqué les Municipales Avant, j’avais confirmé à huis clos qu’il y aura une liste de la Majorité municipale et que Patrick souhaite la conduire ! pic.twitter.com/TzZGz8VEGJ
— Isabelle Balkany (@ibalkany) December 3, 2019
But according to several officials that the AFP news agency spoke to, the journalist’s claim had not been that far off the mark. Earlier in the day, Balkany had indeed phoned them over his wife’s phone from the La Santé prison, thanking them for their work and joking about the “fried eggs and macaronis in butter” he was being served while in prison.
On social media, the surprising news of Balkany’s reelection bid received mixed reactions. “How indecent to run for election while being incarcerated for a serious crime”, a Twitter user by the name of Romain wrote, while another, by the name of Malki Mohammed, rushed to Balkany’s defence, saying some people envy the success of Levallois-Perret to the point they are ready to do anything to “destabilise, misinform and manipulate in the sole ambition of tarnishing town hall”.
Still in the running for office
In the two trials, the Balkanys were convicted of money laundering and hiding assets worth as much as €13 million, including amassing a sizeable real estate fortune with villas in the Caribbean and Morocco, and setting up a complicated network of shell companies in Panama and the Seychelles as well as off-shore bank accounts in Lichtenstein and Singapore.
French media have jokingly dubbed the couple’s financial dealings “the Balkany system”.
The couple has denied all charges, and have appealed the court rulings, meaning that even though they have both been banned from holding public office for a period of 10 years each, they can still act politically for as long as the appeals are still pending.
On Monday, a Paris appeals court will start hearings in the couple’s tax fraud case.
Made of money
Despite their convictions, the conservative Balkanys still enjoy immense popularity in the commune of Levallois-Perret where they have been the leading power couple since the early 1980s. While the mayor is said to be “the actor on stage”, his deputy is “the director”; while he is the “marketer”, she is “the back office”, and so on.
Under the couple’s near four-decade-reign of Levallois-Perret, the town hall has literally poured money into various transformation projects, radically reshaping the former working-class commune into a beautiful, bourgeois-style suburb that now houses a flash multi-media library, a renowned conservatory and a swimming pool with a jacuzzi and a spa.
Popular party people
The couple is also widely reputed for their generosity, frequently hosting parties and other festivities for the city’s 63,000 inhabitants, and have installed several popular traditions such as handing out baskets containing a bottle of wine and a tin of foie gras to the local elderly at Christmas.
But even though the Balkanys’ town hall spendings have made Levallois-Perret France’s No. 1 indebted city for the past six years, the inhabitants don’t seem to mind.
“Society is in no danger if Monsieur Balkany is free! They mayor and the deputy mayor are very involved people. It’s great to live in Levallois,” a mother-of-four told AFP when the pair were convicted and sentenced. A local merchant agreed, saying the sentences were way too harsh: He hasn’t killed anyone! Seize his assets if you must, but prison!?”
Some have also set up a special fund to pay for the mayor’s potential bail. By the end of November, the Balkany bail fund totalled €50,000.