Her twin brother told her when they were just 14 that he was being sexually abused by their well-known stepfather. This week, Camille Kouchner ended three decades of secrecy with the publication of a wrenching memoir that has shaken the close-knit community of Paris intellectuals with an abuse scandal — this time involving the crime of incest.
The man accused is Olivier Duhamel, a prominent political analyst who regularly appeared on television, and who presided over “la familia grande” of the book’s title and annually hosted leading politicians and thinkers at their summer home in Sanary-sur-Mer in the south of France in the 1980s.
Mr Duhamel, who is protected by the statute of limitations in force at the time of the alleged assaults (although the immunity can be lifted in certain circumstances), has resigned as president of the National Foundation of Political Science, the body that oversees the running of Sciences Po university and from other commitments, including the presidency of Le Siècle, an elite dining club. He announced the resignations on Twitter “having become the target of personal attacks” and has made no further comment; he could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the state prosecutor announced that an investigation into the allegations against Mr Duhamel had been launched.
Frédéric Mion, Sciences Po director, said he was “stunned” by the revelations. In a statement he said he was made aware of a “rumour circulating about Olivier Duhamel” in 2019. Mr Mion acknowledged that he should have taken the allegations more seriously. He told Le Monde: “I let myself be fooled.”
The book by Ms Kouchner — who became a lawyer like her stepfather and whose father is Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and a former foreign minister — describes an undisciplined childhood with Mr Duhamel and her mother Evelyne Pisier, a writer and onetime lover of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, surrounded by their coterie of politically leftist and socially liberal friends.
“Some parents and children kissed each other on the mouth. My stepfather flirted with the wives of his mates. The mates picked up the nannies. Young men were offered to older women,” wrote Ms Kouchner, recalling her mother’s explanation: “There’s no harm in it, my little Camille. I know what’s going on. Fucking is our liberty.”
Then came the allegation by her twin brother that Mr Duhamel — now 70 and clearly identified but not named in the book — came into his bed at night and sexually abused him. After the mother was finally told towards the end of her life, she said Mr Duhamel tormented himself about it but reckoned the brother must have been at least 15 “and there was no sodomy”, Ms Kouchner wrote. The brother swore her to secrecy and reluctantly accepted that the truth come out only after their mother’s death in 2017. Some friends of Pisier and Mr Duhamel also became aware of the allegations in recent years but said nothing publicly.
“It’s proof of the reality of things and this culture of rape and this permissiveness,” said Homayra Sellier, founder of Innocence in Danger, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns to protect children from violence and abuse. “There’s been impunity for a long time. Things are tolerated in France that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.”
The Duhamel saga is the latest of several paedophilia and other sexual abuse scandals to have emerged in France in the years following the fall from grace of former IMF managing director and French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn over sexual assault allegations at a New York hotel in 2011.
The 74-year-old Jean-Luc Brunel, a former French model agency boss and associate of the late sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein, was detained last month and is being investigated for “rape of a minor over 15 and sexual harassment”. Gabriel Matzneff, now 84, the French author who for years wrote about his sexual relations with adolescents and children, is also under investigation after one of his alleged victims accused him of having sex with her at the age of 14.
Campaigners and commentators say that the French public — informed by books such as those by Ms Kouchner and Vanessa Springora, Mr Matzneff’s accuser — have recently started to turn against sexual predators who were previously tolerated as roguish libertines.
“What’s changed in France is not the law, it’s people,” said Ms Sellier. “Public opinion is beginning to realise with all this coming out that it’s a plague.”
Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist who runs an association to help victims with traumatic memories, agreed that there were signs that victims were starting to receive more popular support than before and perpetrators less. “There’s really been a lot of tolerance for sexual violence, especially paedophilia, incest included,” particularly when the perpetrators were powerful people, she said.
An Ipsos poll in November for the French pressure group Face à l’inceste found that 10 per cent of the population — 6.7m people — declared themselves to be incest victims, a figure more than three times higher than in a previous poll in 2011, probably because more people were coming forward, rather than because there were necessarily many more victims.
The book was cathartic, too, for Ms Kouchner herself. She concludes it with an emotional letter to her dead mother and angrily addresses her stepfather a few pages earlier, detailing provisions in the penal code and reminding him he could have gone to jail had the accusations come out earlier and he had been successfully prosecuted and convicted.