From convent girl to call-girl queen

WITH its incendiary alliance of sex, money and high society, Margaret MacDonald’s Palais de Justice trial held Paris in its thrall for weeks.

Yesterday, the Scottish former convent girl nicknamed "La Madame Claude Britannique", after the notorious high-class Parisian madame of the Sixties, was found guilty of running an international call-girl ring. She was sentenced to four years in prison.

MacDonald, 44, whose prostitution business was believed to be one of the biggest in Europe, charging clients around 700 per hour, was also fined 150,000 (108,000).

Well-educated and multi-lingual with an impeccable business pedigree, the former student of the Sorbonne rejected claims that she ran a sex-ring for wealthy clients, insisting that she merely set up dates. She portrayed herself as a feminist businesswoman, running an escort service for lonely professionals, and told the court: "You use the same skills to sell computers as you do to sell other activities." Her cut was 40 per cent.

One of MacDonald’s former employees, Axelle Guerin, described the verdict as "scandalous, scandalous, scandalous". She added: "It’s hypocritical. The slaves you see on the street when you drive home tonight - they are prostitutes."

Emanuel Marsigny, MacDonald’s lawyer, said his client was very upset and would appeal.

"Only those who set up relationships are taken to court. That is the hypocrisy," he said after the verdict. "The girls are still working", while MacDonald "is paying for everybody".

She was convicted of "aggravated procuring", a crime which carried a ten-year sentence.

MacDonald, who was arrested at the Tivoli Hotel, just off the Champs-Elyses, ran her business with the rigour and efficiency she had applied to her studies at the Sorbonne and leading French business academy, the Reims Management school. Her linguistic skills were also put to good use as she divided her time between Paris, Athens and her luxury home in Milan, where she employed a butler and a Sri Lankan cook.

A former escort girl herself, she first poached her girls from other escort agencies and drew in clients through advertisements she placed on the internet, magazines and newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune, which has since withdrawn its escort adverts.

She claimed her agency was a "partnership between women", set up to help girls escape the clutches of pimps. Her girls, hand-picked and charged according to their looks, always dressed the part - elegant, expensively-groomed but never trashy.

Clients were charged according to their wealth. Men with hotel rooms at the luxury George V hotel in Paris could be charged up to 600 an hour, while those in cheaper hotels were billed 250 an hour. During her two-day trial in September, the prosecution said she had employed 538 call-girls and 36 men around Europe.

By taking clients’ calls personally, then telephoning the girls herself, she kept a firm grip on her business and was soon earning up to 100,000 per day. She was careful, equipping herself with a laptop, six credit cards, five mobile phones - with several SIM cards - and several aliases to evade police.

The business became international - with girls flown around the world and earning up to 5,000 per day. Dates took place in exotic locations like Mediterranean resorts, and even on a luxury yacht off the Cte D’Azur.

The ruthless business mind that aided her life of crime impressed those around her, not least of whom was the head of the vice-squad who brought her in. Daniel Rigourd, who described it as "the biggest-ever pimping arrest", also, rather breathlessly, claimed she was "fascinating and sophisticated". She was, he said, "brilliant, distinguished and a truly class operator".

But her choice of career has mortified her family and those in the Home Counties, where she grew up. Her widowed mother, Tilly, 74, a devout Roman Catholic from Glasgow who now lives in a 650,000 detached house in the exclusive St Leonards estate, in Windsor, is still traumatised by what has befallen her family. All she will talk about is her deep shock at learning that the daughter she thought had a successful career in marketing was being accused of such a crime. "This is not my daughter they are talking about" she said.

Born Margaret McDonald in Bedford in 1959, she was the eldest of three children. Her Glasgow-born father, John McDonald, was a sergeant in the RAF, which took him to Buckinghamshire, before leaving the forces to pursue his passion for business. His own father, James McBrearty, had been the director of a Glasgow building company.

A strict disciplinarian, he insisted his three children, Margaret, Eileen and Kenneth had a proper education. Margaret, the eldest, attended St Edwards’ convent school in Windsor and then St Bernard’s in Slough, where she displayed a talent for languages. She studied pure maths before deciding to take a European business administration course at the Reims Management School and afterwards went to the Sorbonne.

Her younger sister, Eileen le Rossignol, said: "England was never a big enough place for Margaret." Her father, who died a year ago, never learned of her double life.

Ms Le Rossignol said: "In more than 20 years, I haven’t seen her more than three times. The last time she returned, to our father’s funeral last year, she certainly never mentioned anything of her life to us."

MacDonald reportedly kept in touch with her parents - the landlord of her luxury Milan apartment said that she had introduced him to her mother and father two years ago when they were over for a visit. The landlord, who talked of her disappearing for weeks at a time to Greece and France, believed she worked in the translation industry.

During her trial, however, MacDonald claimed that her family life was unhappy, and a diary entry quoted by her lawyer in court claimed that her father used to beat her.

"She suffered from a series of bad relationships when she was younger and became lonely. Her father beat her up and kicked her," said Marsigny. "This had a profound effect on her personality. She spent Christmases alone, evenings in bars and restaurants on her own and took Prozac ... lots of it."

She drifted into escort work after a series of unhappy romances, including one with her yoga teacher. At one time she boasted of running 8,000 girls.

Three years ago, she had set up partnership with a 24-year old German girl, Laura Schleich. But Schleich, who later set up a rival escort service, was to be her nemesis. Arrested in 2001 for openly running a vice-ring, she told police everything about her former partner. Schleich fled France after her arrest and is being tried in absentia.

MacDonald insisted that her escorts never had paid sex, but her colleague and friend, Guerin, was not so coy. She claimed outside the court that men weren’t paying up to 350 an hour "to look into my eyes".

The police have not yet discovered where MacDonald’s millions are. Her accounts in the Channel Islands, London and elsewhere were found to be empty. "I’m a bit hopeless at personal finances," she told them. But even if they do, it is unlikely that, when she gets out of jail (she has already served 17 months), she will find herself short of cash. She has reportedly negotiated a movie deal in jail and plans to sell her story.