French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, fights for political life after book claims

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner
Bernard Kouchner mounts an impassioned defence in Parliament today
(Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Bernard Kouchner, the popular French Foreign Minister, was fighting to clear his name yesterday after a book depicted him as a fraud who took money from unsavoury African leaders and served US interests.

Dr Kouchner, 69, who has been a celebrity since he helped to found the charity Médecins sans Frontières in 1971, rejected the allegations of sleaze and said that he was the victim of an anti-Semitic character assassination.

In an impassioned speech before parliament, Dr Kouchner said that his honour had been impugned in “a book made from insinuations and distortions”. He confirmed that he had in the past been paid consultancy fees for work in Africa but insisted that they had been legal and transparent. His lawyer said that he would take legal action.

Many of the allegations had been aired before but Dr Kouchner was put on the defensive by the onslaught in The World According to K by Pierre Péan, an investigative writer.

Related article: Cash from dictators for France’s ‘Mr Clean’ (Guardian)

Senior Socialists and even members of President Sarkozy’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement called on Dr Kouchner to respond. “Bernard Kouchner, if he still has any honour, must seriously explain himself in front of public opinion,” said Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist MP. François Fillon, the Prime Minister, came to the defence of Dr Kouchner, saying: “Nothing justifies the way that the reputation of a man is being trampled in the wake of simple allegations.” He added: “Everywhere in the world, the voice of France is carried by this man with a heart whose life and commitment to humanitarian causes speak for themselves.”

There were suspicions that Mr Péan, a left-winger, was briefed by adversaries of the larger-than-life minister who has angered many in his old Socialist camp and in the radical-right administration of Mr Sarkozy. The former minister in Socialist governments fell out with Mr Sarkozy soon after his appointment in 2007. There were suggestions that the Élysée Palace might have had a hand in the book.

Mr Péan depicts Dr Kouchner, a former UN administrator for Kosovo, as a hypocrite for earning large sums of money as a consultant to governments in Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and other regimes while grooming his image as a human rights campaigner. It does not claim that the doctor, who has long ranked in polls as the most popular French politician, was earning outside money while in Government.

The book gives details of two companies owned by associates of Dr Kouchner, which billed Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville ¤4.6 million (£4 million) for reports that he wrote on their health insurance systems. Dr Kouchner was working as a consultant at the time, between 2002 and 2007, but Mr Péan claims that he recovered unpaid debts from Gabon after May 2007.

“I never signed a contract with an African state,” Dr Kouchner said. “I was a consultant for a French firm. In three years of work I earned an average of ¤6,000 per month after tax.”

The allegations carry weight because Mr Péan, 70, is one of the most prolific and successful French investigators of political scandal. He has produced two dozen books detailing corruption in high circles and has specialised in the dealings between Paris and “Franceafrique”, the collective name for the unstable former colonies that became client states of France. His bestselling book is Une Jeunesse Française (A French Youth), which in 1994 revealed that the late President Mitterrand was decorated by the wartime collaborationist Government of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Mitterrand co-operated with Mr Péan, who treated him sympathetically.

Dr Kouchner was defended by Jean-Marie Bockel, who was dismissed last year as a junior minister. The book implies that Dr Kouchner dismissed Mr Bockel because he had displeased President Bongo of Gabon by speaking out against corruption. Mr Bockel said that Dr Kouchner was not behind his removal.

Dr Kouchner also attacked charges in the book that carry overtones of anti-Semitism. Mr Péan mocks Dr Kouchner’s pride in his Jewish origins. He writes in vitriolic terms that Dr Kouchner subscribes to “an Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism” that detests the values of the French Republic and its independent foreign policy.

Such charges were aired in 2003 when Dr Kouchner was the only senior French political figure who supported intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The US-led invasion of Iraq was wrong without UN approval, Dr Kouchner said but it was a lesser evil than leaving Saddam in place.In Dr Kouchner’s view, “our old country can easily do without a strong foreign minister since it is just faithfully following directions from Washington”, writes Mr Péan.

Dr Kouchner dismissed the allegations as malicious nonsense.

The book raised questions about the appointment of Dr Kouchner’s wife, Christine Ockrent, a senior television journalist, as chief of France Monde, a new agency in charge of external broadcasting. The French watchdog accounting agency said, however, that there was confusion over which part of the Government controls it.

Kouchner: life and times
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1939: Born in Avignon.

1968: As communist medical student, leads strikes in May ’68 uprising

1971: Co-founded Médecins-sans-Frontières relief charity which later won Nobel prize

1979: Co-founded Médecins-du-Monde after breaking with MSF

1988-93: Minister for Health and Humanitarian Relief under President Mitterrand

1994: Organised relief for Rwanda genocide victims

2003: Supports the removal of Saddam Hussein and refuses to condemn US-led invasion of Iraq.

late 1990s: fails to win seat in Parliament. Still never been elected to any political office

1999-2001 UN Administrator for Kosovo

2002-7 Consultant in health services and international relief. Employed by Congo, Gabon and other states.

2007 Becomes Foreign Minister in President Sarkozy’s right-wing Government. Socialist colleagues call him traitor.

2008 Christine Okrent, his wife, appointed head of French overseas broadcasting

February 5, 2009
Charles Bremner in Paris

Source: The Times

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