British boss of European escort agency gets four years for 'aggravated pimping'

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The Independent Online

A British woman accused of running one of Europe's most elaborate and expensive prostitution rings was jailed for four years yesterday - her 44th birthday - after being convicted by a French court of "aggravated pimping".

The court had been told at an earlier hearing that Margaret MacDonald - who was born into a middle-class family in Bedford and educated at convent school and at British and French business colleges - ran a network of almost 600 "escorts", both male and female, who charged €1,000 (£700) an hour for sex. Clients were said to include showbusiness personalities and executives of big companies.

MacDonald, who listened to the verdict impassively before leaving court with her face covered by a red scarf, had denied the charges. She told the court last month that she was an "excellent businesswoman" who ran a modest escort agency and never forced her employees to have sex with their clients.

Her lawyer, Maître Emmanuel Marsigny, denounced the verdict and sentence, which also included a fine of €150,000, as "double hypocrisy.

"Four years is a heavy sentence. My client is extremely disappointed," he said. "She is an extremely fragile woman. In cases of this kind, it is only the Margaret MacDonalds of this world who pay. The young women and the clients are never bothered. That is what we will tell the court of appeal."

One of Ms MacDonald's former "escorts", Axelle Guerin, who testified on her behalf, described the judgment as scandalous. "She always operated in a classy way. She didn't force anyone to do anything," Ms Guerin said. "All these girls you see [on the streets of Paris], these Slav and African girls, they are the real victims of forced pimping. If they refuse, they get a bullet in the knees."

During her two-day trial in September, the prosecution portrayed MacDonald as a highly intelligent empress of vice, operating in several countries, speaking several languages, and earning €240,000 a year.

MacDonald insisted that her operation was modest and was only one of many escort agencies operating across international boundaries in Europe. She said she never had more than 20 escorts at one time and she made her employees sign a piece of paper, saying they understood they were not obliged to have sex. She acknowledged, however, that her escorts did sometimes sleep with their clients. "When people like each other, they want to move beyond the dinner table," she said.

She also admitted, damagingly, that the cost of her service depended on how far the escort was prepared to go.

MacDonald also boasted to the court of her business acumen. "You use the same skills to sell computers as you do to sell other activities," she said.

Just how elaborate and high-class her agency was remains open to doubt. When MacDonald was arrested in May last year, after a tip-off from a former employee who had become a rival, she was staying at a modest, tourist hotel near the Arc de Triomphe and wearing jogging clothes. Although the prosecution alleged that her clients included the rich and famous, no evidence supporting these claims was presented in court.

After finishing her education, MacDonald drifted though a variety of jobs and was herself a call-girl before setting up the "European Escort Service" six years ago. Her family has refused to talk to the press but family friends say her parents always spoke of her as a "businesswoman" who had "Arab boyfriends".

She has already spent 17 months in jail, awaiting trial. If she dropped her appeal, she could expect, with normal parole terms, to spend about another six months in prison.