OK, before anyone tries to get us round to the painful reality that I’m a tiresome old bore: some titilation for you. Unfortunately, this is not about ‘sexual tourism’, except, that is in the most general sense. (Although if anyone wants to pick up on this in the comments, I think we’re in the same ballpark). No the ‘topic du jour’ here is a bit nearer home. And the underlying issue is – believe me – one of the Singapore Issues: use and abuse of ‘indirect obstacles’ to prevent the free exercise of a service. Whatever the ethical stand you take on this, my feeling is that the French law got involved because the business was being ‘outsourced’ in the wrong direction. Well, at least we British are good at something.
French court officials looked baffled and bewildered by the sheer scale of the scrum of British journalists, photographers and camera crews waiting to get into Courtroom 14 of the Palais de Justice
Everyone wanted a front row seat for the verdict and sentencing of Britain’s very own Paris madam, Margaret MacDonald.
First to the courtroom door, though, was her ever-faithful friend and glamorous former employee, the raven-haired Axelle Guerin.
Once an escort girl, Ms Guerin has been firm in her defence of her former boss, describing the convent-educated vice queen as “always nice and kind”, and as a woman who had never instructed her employees to have sex with clients.
“But ‘escort’ can mean many things,” Axelle memorably once told me with a raised eyebrow during the trial itself.
Unfortunately, the Paris judge saw it all rather differently, and found Ms MacDonald guilty of aggravated pimping, sentencing her to four years in prison plus a hefty fine of 150,000 euros.
The 44-year old British woman – whose birthday it was today – looked impassive as the verdict was announced. But outside the court, her supporters were furious.
Axelle, though reluctant to speak to the media thanks to her own deal with the News of the World tabloid, did shout that the sentence was unfair and hypocritical, before running impressively in her high heels away from the cameras and out of the court.
She and other friends of Ms MacDonald want to know why someone running a discreet escort service should find themselves being prosecuted while blatant street prostitution of women from eastern Europe and beyond continues with impunity not far from Paris city centre.
The answer may lie in the success of Margaret MacDonald’s business. She herself was described by police as a sophisticated and efficient businesswoman, who embarked on an illegal trade.
Escort agencies are not legal in France and nor is pimping.
The court heard that the British woman’s business appeared to be an extremely lucrative one.
With three business degrees and a fluent command of eight languages, Margaret MacDonald used both the internet and the International Herald Tribune newspaper to advertise her escorts’ services.
According to the prosecution, she employed more than 500 women – and up to 50 men – in a business that spanned Europe and the Middle East, with clients charged up to 700 euros an hour for her escorts’ company and more.
It was Ms MacDonald’s meticulous attention to detail – logging the money transactions, as well as the names and other details of the clients and the escorts she brought together – which ultimately led to her downfall.
And in court, at one stage, she did appear to incriminate herself when the judge questioned whether she believed her clients were really paying so much just for the company of her escorts.
What if, the judge asked, the men or women refused to have sex with a client – would they get a discount?
“Well, rather like a restaurant,” Margaret answered to laughter in court, “you only pay for what you consume.”
Her other handy tips included what excuses to use if a girl did not want to sleep with a client, gleaned from her own experience as an escort.
She admitted that when she didn’t want to sleep with one particular German client, she feigned a headache.
Whether he received a discount was not revealed.
Tonight, back in Fleurie women’s prison, Margaret MacDonald will have much to contemplate.
A tabloid bidding war has broken out for her story, and she says she needs the money – claiming to have saved nothing from her more lucrative times.
According to her lawyer, she is also contemplating a Hollywood film of her life, which may perhaps reveal more of how a home counties convent schoolgirl came to find herself a successful international vice queen.