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Kouchner defends ‘honour’, rejects book's allegations

Video by Angela YEOH , James CREEDON

Text by Lorena GALLIOT

Latest update : 2009-02-05

In a spirited speech before parliament, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner roundly rejected allegations in a newly published book accusing him of unethical ties to African regimes.

These are troubled times for French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the country’s most popular political figures. Accused of having unethical ties to African regimes in a book by Pierre Péan, journalist at French daily broadsheet Le Monde, the former humanitarian doctor hit back and called the allegations “grotesque and sickening”. But the book may leave a permanent stain on the reputation of the charismatic “French Doctor”.


In The world according to K, Péan wrote that Kouchner was paid huge sums by African leaders, in particular by the president of Gabon, Omar Bongo, while acting as a consultant shortly before he returned to office in 2007, and argued that this constitutes a conflict of interest with his public role. He also accuses the foreign minister of serving American neo-Conservative interests, and of glossing over atrocities by US allies in Rwanda and the Balkans.


Kouchner firmly denied the allegations in a speech before the French parliament on Wednesday. “At no moment in Gabon or elsewhere did I make use of my ministerial functions” for private gain, he stated, arguing that he has always acted in “total transparency and legality” while working as a consultant. He claims to have earned an average of 6,000 euros (7,700 dollars) a month after tax over three years of working for consulting firms Africa Steps and Imeda.


Scandal or slander?


But for Douglas Yates, a political science professor at the American University of Paris, the book does more than accuse Kouchner of one instance of corruption and conflict of interest. “This book is mostly an anti-biography of Kouchner that de-bunks the myth of him as a humanitarian do-gooder”, Yates told France 24, lining up the accusations contained in the book. “Péan accuses Kouchner of being unpatriotic, a risk-seeking war-like individual, a propagandist in Bosnia, a publicity-seeker in Somalia, a hypocrite and a dupe in Rwanda, a sell-out in Kosovo and a poodle of American neo-cons in Darfur.”


Yates doesn’t specify whether he believes the allegations to be true, but explains that this unflattering portrait is all the more damaging because so far, Kouchner’s crusades have been widely followed and supported by the international community. Actively involved in peacekeeping and humanitarian campaigns in the major humanitarian crises of the past decade, the current minister is best known outside France for founding the humanitarian aid NGO Doctors Without Borders.


“Péan reveals Kouchner’s hidden, darker side, one that many Africans have known for a long time”, African investigative journalist Charles Onana told France 24. “The Abbé Pierre (a beloved French abbot who spent his life fighting for the rights of the homeless) would turn around in his grave if he saw Kouchner’s behaviour in Africa.”


Although members of the socialist opposition called for a parliamentary probe into the allegations, prominent political figures from both sides of the political spectrum have rushed to Kouchner’s defence. France’s Prime Minister François Fillon called him a “man committed to his action in the field”, and said that “nothing justifies a man’s reputation being trampled like that following mere allegations.”


Michel Antoine Burnier, author of the authorised biography The 7 lives of Doctor Kouchner, points out that Kouchner did nothing more than perceive ordinary consulting fees for missions conducted in several African states. “His wages were far less than those of any World Bank or WHO expert”, he told France 24.


For Marie-Roger Bilao, editor in chief of Africa International, the scandal is “mostly a French problem towards Kouchner, stemming from internal conflicts within the political class.


“It doesn’t mean at all that his detractors care about Africa or shady deals with the African government”, she told France 24. Kouchner himself claims to be the victim of political enmities.

Date created : 2009-02-04