By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 5, 2009
PARIS, Feb. 4 -- Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a media-savvy human rights campaigner and co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, has regularly been cited in opinion polls as the most popular politician in France.
But Paris was buzzing Wednesday with another vision of Kouchner: A new book charges that he used his do-gooder celebrity and official connections to make money as a health consultant in West Africa and then, after becoming foreign minister, dunned African leaders to pay up what they owed for his work.
The controversy boiled not only because Paris loves nothing better than a political scandal: It was particularly intense because Kouchner, 70, is an icon of compassion for suffering people in the developing world, and he has a record three decades long of providing medical assistance and dramatizing the human cost of wars and natural disasters.
In addition, Kouchner had a long association with the Socialist Party, including as health minister, before becoming foreign minister in 2007 under the right-of-center President Nicolas Sarkozy -- and a prime example of Sarkozy's ability to co-opt the left. Denounced by some Socialists as betrayal, Kouchner's willingness to work with Sarkozy provided a venomous political backdrop to the accusations that made them easier to believe for many in Paris salons.
Sarkozy's office, which will have to decide whether the uproar has damaged Kouchner's ability to function effectively as foreign minister, had no immediate comment. But Prime Minister François Fillon called the charges part of a "manhunt," and the head of Sarkozy's political party, Xavier Bertrand, suggested that the book, "The World According to K," was a way for the Socialist Party to "settle accounts" with Kouchner.
Kouchner, who was headed for Washington to meet Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, returned fire for the first time against the book's author, investigative journalist Pierre Péan. On the Web site of the weekly magazine Nouvel Observateur, he called the book "a grotesque and sickening attack" containing accusations "that are backed up by nothing."
In a parliamentary speech and on the Web site, Kouchner acknowledged that before becoming foreign minister he was a consultant for a French firm, Imeda, in an area in which he had particular expertise, medicine and public health, and that he did work in West Africa. But, he said, he "never signed a contract with an African state. Never."
"Is there something shocking in a former health minister, who carried out humanitarian missions for Doctors Without Borders -- Nobel Prize winner, I remind you -- and Doctors of the World and many others, without earning a cent, writing reports permitting African countries to improve their health systems?" he asked, adding: "I always have acted with legality and transparence, declared my income, paid my taxes."
A prominent Paris lawyer retained by Kouchner, Georges Kiejman, said on RTL radio that he would probably bring a libel suit against Péan on Kouchner's behalf. At the same time, Kiejman urged a Paris prosecutor to bring libel charges, which in France can be a criminal prosecution, because Kouchner had been attacked during service as a minister.
"One takes the most popular person and one attacks him, and one hopes the popularity of the person one attacks of course will multiply the number of copies sold," Kiejman said.
Péan, joining the battle on France-Info radio, said he never accused Kouchner of violating the law, but rather of making lucrative deals with unsavory African governments not in keeping with his image as a human rights crusader.
"I do not speak of illegality," Péan said. "I worked from the perspective of ethics and republican morality." Kouchner's actions, he added, created "a distortion between what he does in general and the image French people have of him."
Péan's most damaging revelations concerned Kouchner's work for Imeda in the Republic of Congo and Gabon, countries where France was once the colonial power and retains strong economic and political influence. Imeda, Péan wrote, was founded by two of Kouchner's friends with Kouchner's collaboration and profited from his reputation to obtain several million dollars' worth of health consultancy contracts from President Omar Bongo in Gabon and Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso in the Republic of Congo.
But beyond the specifics, Péan's book sought to portray Kouchner as a former crusader who was seduced over the years by association with the rich and famous. Kouchner and his wife, journalist Christine Ockrent, spent time with the millionaire Bernard Tapie on his yacht, bought a vacation home on the island of Corsica and luxuriated in the "soft life of the riads of Marrakech" with the likes of celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and his wife, show business personality Arielle Dombasle, Péan wrote.
"Since then, the lifestyle of the Kouchner-Ockrent couple led them to skid off the straight and narrow in ways that have stained their respective uniforms as the white knight of humanitarian work and the straight, professional, U.S.-style journalist," he added.