The assistant mayor, the Swiss bank accounts and the €350,000 of Moroccan drugs money

French anti-fraud investigators have uncovered an extraordinary tax scam involving prominent elected officials and a cannabis-smuggling ring. John Lichfield reports from Paris

In February this year, French police intercepted one of the dozens of "go-fast" cars which transport cannabis at high speed from Spain to Paris. The seizure – banal in itself –unravelled an extraordinary network of drug-trafficking, money-laundering, fraud and tax evasion which sprawled over the invisible barrier which separates Paris from the city's poor, multiracial suburbs.

Bank notes handed by clients to street drug dealers in the suburbs were ending up, French and Swiss investigators discovered, in the safes of seemingly law-abiding, well-heeled citizens in the French capital.

Seven prominent Parisians have been arrested in the past few days and accused of "conspiracy to launder money and association with criminals". They include a Green politician, Florence Lamblin, a society lawyer, Robert Sellam, an art dealer, a dentist and a sound engineer.

All deny any connection with drug traffickers. All have been obliged to admit they were smuggling – so they thought – cash into France from undeclared Swiss bank accounts. The cash was, in fact, coming directly from cannabis dealing in the south-western suburbs of Paris. A trio of Moroccan brothers, including a prominent fund manager in Geneva, are alleged to have concocted an elaborate scheme to launder money by balancing two illegal flows of cash. The cannabis profits leaving France were "swapped" for assets hidden in Switzerland which tax cheats or business fraudsters wished to repatriate.

The risky job of smuggling drug-trafficking proceeds over the Franco-Swiss border was avoided. Instead, the drugs cash was handed over in plastic bags to Parisians who had hidden Swiss accounts. The same sums were debited from their banks in Geneva and sent on a complex route through shell companies in London and offshore tax havens to purchase assets for the drug barons in Morocco, Dubai or Spain. A commission was allegedly paid on both transactions.

The three brothers, Meyer El-Maleh, 48, a Geneva-based fund manager, Mardoché El- Maleh, 52, and Nessim El- Maleh, 28, were among the 20 people arrested last week by investigators in Switzerland and France. They are suspected of handling up to €12m (£9.6m) in cash in the past seven months (and far more over the past four years). Assets seized by the police include €2m in cash, gold ingots, art treasures and guns.

The arrest of Ms Lamblin, the Green assistant mayor of the 13th arrondissement of Paris, has turned the affair into a political slanging match that could prove deeply embarrassing for the Socialist-Green administration of President François Hollande. The need for tougher action against international money laundering was one of the main issues raised by the Green party in elections last spring.

Ms Lamblin's lawyer, Jérôme Boursican, said at first that she was the victim of a "miscarriage of justice". He later admitted she had been repatriating cash from a €350,000 family bequest held in Geneva for almost a century and never declared to the French tax authorities.

Mr Boursican said: "At the invitation of her bank, my client wanted to repatriate €350,000 from a family bequest placed in a Swiss account in 1920. She took advice from someone she trusted who put her in touch with someone capable of handling this kind of transaction."

He said Ms Lamblin had "no connection whatsoever" with drug trafficking. She was guilty "at most" of not declaring the money to the taxman.

She has been released on bail. The accusation of "association with criminals" may prove untenable but the admission of "at most" tax evasion will probably end her political career.

At a time when the Socialist-Green government is turning the tax vice on both the wealthy and the middle classes, this admission was almost as explosive politically as if she had admitted to drug trafficking. At the insistence of an irate Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, Ms Lamblin resigned on Saturday and stood down from her position as city councillor.

The main centre-right opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), said Ms Lamblin's alleged involvement proved that the French left was "culpably soft" in its attitude towards drugs. The far-right National Front party said the affair proved the mainstream political system was "rotten to the core".

The affair draws attention to a scarcely concealed secret which is the subject of nudge-nudge conversations among the bourgeoisie of both right and left. Large sums are systematically hidden from French tax authorities in accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg. New methods of circumventing ever-tighter border controls are the subject of eager discussion.

Up to 30 well-off Parisians are said to have been using the El-Maleh brothers' services. Most were hiding legitimate assets from the taxman. One or two are said to have admitted concealing money embezzled from their companies or clients.

The Franco-Swiss investigation began with the interception in February of a powerful limousine packed with cannabis en route from Morocco, via Spain, to the Paris suburbs. Investigators used evidence from those arrested in the so-called "go-fast" car to unravel the financial trail of a large, Moroccan-based cannabis-smuggling operation.

"You need to attack on the financial, as well as the criminal front," said Jean-Marc Savira, head of the French police anti-fraud squad, the OCRGDF. In other words, "follow the money". Police tracked down and watched a man in his 30s whose job was to collect the proceeds from street traffickers in the Trappe-Mantes-la-Jolie area south-west of Paris. Police sources say they observed that he handed over bags full of cash to Mardoché El-Maleh.

They also watched Mr El-Maleh hand over bags to apparently respectable people in wealthy areas of Paris.

Swiss investigators are said to have uncovered the alleged role of the two other El-Maleh brothers, who were both based in Geneva. One, Nessim, worked for a private bank owned by Britain's HSBC. The other, Meyer, operated a respected fund-management company.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?