PARIS, AUG. 24 -- France's most popular television news anchor, who rushed to Baghdad hot on the heels of Ted Koppel and Dan Rather to report on the Persian Gulf crisis, returned home this week with an extraordinary souvenir smuggled out of the Iraqi capital: a baby handed to him by one of the French hostages.
Patrick Poivre d'Arvor -- or PPDA, as he is known by everyone -- flew out of Baghdad Tuesday with the 18-month-old boy hidden in his travel bag, according to his colleagues at TF 1, a French television network. On behalf of the father, who is being held hostage, Poivre d'Arvor had pleaded in vain with Iraqi authorities for permission to reunite the baby with his mother, who had left for France before Iraq invaded Kuwait three weeks ago.
When the Iraqis refused, the anchor decided to slip the child out of the country in his bag. Colleagues said the task was simplified by his status as a privileged guest of the government; customs procedures were relaxed. Poivre d'Arvor and his tiny companion left the country on his company's private jet.
At a press conference Wednesday, Poivre d'Arvor alluded to his baby-smuggling caper by mentioning he had "a marvelous story to tell" but would only do so later. Friends of the journalist said he had intended to reveal the incident at the press conference, but changed his mind because he feared the Iraqis might punish the father.
Poivre d'Arvor did not answer calls today, and colleagues said he had left Paris for a secluded vacation with his family.
The exploit has brought to a halt, for the time being, a barrage of criticism from the French government about the anchor's reporting from Iraq. On July 8, three weeks before the Iraqi invasion, TF 1 broadcast an interview with Saddam Hussein conducted by Poivre d'Arvor, in which the journalist fawningly described the Iraqi leader as "the de Gaulle of the Arabs."
During Poivre d'Arvor's visit to Baghdad this week, TF 1 broadcast scenes of French hostages lounging by a hotel pool in Baghdad, along with interview snippets in which the hostages said they were being well treated and hoped the crisis would end soon.
Prime Minister Michel Rocard issued an oblique reprimand, saying that "certain journalists should engage in some soul-searching about their role in the current crisis." But the message was clear: Rocard was accusing Poivre d'Arvor of serving the interests of Iraqi propaganda.
The anchor retorted that the prime minister "should try to stick to the business of making policy and running the government." That jab was more pointed than it would appear, because Rocard has been faulted for spending most of his time during the three-week gulf crisis sailing aboard a yacht off the coast of Yugoslavia.
The objectivity of the network was also called into question. One of the largest shareholders in TF 1 is France's biggest contracting firm, Bouygues, which, like its American counterpart, Bechtel Inc., has reaped lucrative profits from construction projects in oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, including Iraq.
Critics of the network have charged that Poivre d'Arvor's benign portrayal of Saddam Hussein in his recent interview, and the scenes broadcast this week of French hostages at poolside, were undoubtedly affected by the business interests of Bouygues.
Some leading French editors and reporters are also troubled by the possibility of a conflict of interest affecting the work of Poivre d'Arvor, who enjoys celebrity status here as a darling of intellectuals and the cafe society.
But Rocard's intervention -- and PPDA's bravura performance in rescuing the French infant from the clutches of Saddam Hussein -- has rallied many of them to his defense.
"The entire press comes under assault when one is attacked for simply informing the public," wrote Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor in chief of the daily Le Figaro. "But the fact that the victim of these attacks, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, has accomplished a courageous and humanitarian act should silence his detractors."