How an elite family's decades-old secret sparked a reckoning about sexual abuse in France

Sexual abuse within families had long been a problem France failed to confront. That appears to have changed recently with the release of a book that exposed a dark and decades-old secret of a prominent French family.

Bestselling book leads to a criminal investigation, an outpouring online and possible changes to France's laws

Graffiti on a wall in Paris reads, 'Duhamel, and the others, you will never be in peace,' referring to prominent French political expert Olivier Duhamel. The French government pledged on Thursday to toughen laws on the sexual abuse of children as a massive online movement has seen hundreds of victims share accounts about sexual abuses within their families under the hashtag #MeTooInceste. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

A 30-year-old family secret has shaken the elite of France.

And it has nothing to do with the usual money scandals that rock the French establishment.

This is about alleged sexual abuse of a minor and the powerful people accused of staying silent.

The allegation, which was detailed in a bestselling book and is now under investigation by Paris prosecutors, involves an influential political scientist sexually abusing his teenage stepson.

A person holds the book La Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner in a Paris bookstore. The author is the stepdaughter of prominent French political expert Olivier Duhamel, whom she accuses of sexually abusing her twin brother during the late 1980s, when the siblings were teenagers. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

Investigators have yet to finish their work, but the case has already touched off a huge national debate on the extent of incest and sexual crimes in families, and the culture of silence that has helped to hide the problem.

The debate is so intense, French President Emmanuel Macron felt obliged to jump in on Jan. 23. He issued a video, telling victims, "We are there, we hear you, we believe you. You will never be alone." 

He promised tougher laws on sexual crimes. The French parliament is already debating them.

Book reveals dark secret

This began, and stayed for years, a family story. But not just any family. Olivier Duhamel, 70, was a high-flyer in the tight French elite, not a politician in public view but an adviser, a political scientist and constitutional expert. And friend to French presidents.

When the scandal erupted, he was the president of the powerful Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, which runs one of France's most influential universities, the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

He was also the president of Le Siècle, a club of France's political and intellectual elite. For good measure, he appeared weekly on radio and television.

That carefully constructed world collapsed in early January with the publication of a book. It's called La Familia Grande and is written by his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner, 45. In it, she details the alleged sexual abuse of her twin brother, whom she calls Victor in the book to protect his privacy, by her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, when Victor was 13 and 14.

Duhamel immediately resigned all his posts and went to ground. He admitted nothing, simply saying he had been the target of personal attacks.

Olivier Duhamel, second from right, used to be an influential political scientist in France, seen here in 2007 with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Others also resigned, including a former justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou. She was a close friend of Duhamel and his family but, for the record, denied knowing of the allegations. Almost unbelievably, the post she resigned from was as chair of a government commission on incest.

According to Camille Kouchner, Duhamel's family, and then others close to the family, had known for a dozen years of the alleged sexual abuse, but Victor had not wanted the facts to become public.

Her book unleashed a storm. The social media hashtag #MeTooInceste attracted thousands of testimonies from people saying they had been victims of incest. This reflected the shocking result of an opinion poll from Ipsos in November 2020 that surveyed a random sample of 1,033 French adults. In it, one in 10 people surveyed said they had been victims of incest. (In France, incest is defined more widely, and includes sexual abuse by a family member even if not related by blood.)

Change to the law

Camille Kouchner's book has already had a print run of more than 300,000 copies. Two weeks after its publication, Victor was interviewed by French police. An investigation 10 years earlier had been dropped because the statute of limitations on incest and sexual aggression against minors was limited to 20 years. 

Two years ago, the statute of limitations was lengthened to 30 years from the age of majority of the minor. 

And, in response to the groundswell of outrage, Macron said, "We will go after the aggressors."

French President Emmanuel Macron, wearing a protective face mask, has offered his support to victims of sexual abuse within families. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

On Jan. 26, Victor officially indicated that he considered his stepfather an aggressor. He made a criminal complaint against Olivier Duhamel.

Victor's brother, Julien Kouchner, was quoted in the newspaper Le Parisien two days earlier saying, "In our circle, many people knew of the behaviour of my stepfather." That circle was one of the highest in France. The father of Julien, Victor and Camille is Bernard Kouchner, a former French foreign minister and co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). His second wife is Christine Ockrent, a famous television anchor and journalist. 

According to Camille and Julien, Kouchner and Ockrent were horrified when Victor told them of Duhamel's behaviour in 2008, but Victor didn't want it made public because his mother, Evelyne Pisier, was still with Duhamel and refused to accept he had raped her son. But Kouchner and Ockrent allegedly told friends.

Bernard Kouchner, former foreign minister of France, is seen during the 2018 Iran Uprising Summit in Manhattan, New York. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

Julien told Le Parisien: "Our world then divided into two, those who distanced themselves or even broke with [Duhamel], and others who stayed with him because of disbelief or opportunism…. But I've since discovered a third category, that of the accomplices who said things were only rumours which they knew to be exact facts."

For 12 years, Olivier Duhamel carried on untouched. He lost none of his positions or clout.

Only after Evelyne Pisier died in 2017 did Camille, with Victor's permission and support, decide to write about what happened.

Social reckoning 

The detonation has been huge, but there was another bomb a year earlier. It, too, took the form of a book, this one called Le Consentement (Consent). The author, Vanessa Springora, told of being sexually pursued and possessed at age 14 in the 1980s by a man more than 30 years older. 

The man was Gabriel Matzneff, 84, a successful author whose works detailed the pursuit and conquest of teenage girls and boys. He was rewarded with editing jobs at a big publishing house and major French literary prizes.

The book Le Consentement by Vanessa Springora is displayed in a bookstore outside Paris. The literary editor alleges that she had a destructive underage sexual relationship with French author Gabriel Matzneff, now in his eighties. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)

Springora's book, which sold more than 200,000 copies, brought about an abrupt change. Matzneff was stripped of his positions and charged with justifying aggravated rape.

He expressed "regret" for his sexual activities, but, in an interview with the New York Times in February 2020, seemed unrepentant. "Even the silly things I might have done in those euphoric days of freedom, I wasn't the only one. What hypocrisy."

"Those days of freedom" refers to the years after what in France are called "the events of 1968." France was brought to a halt in May 1968 by massive strikes. The call was for revolution, and for sexual freedom in particular. 

The 1960s, '70s and '80s among elites in France became an era of open sex and open marriages. The mother of Victor, Evelyne Pisier, both before and after she divorced Bernard Kouchner, embraced this ethos with several lovers, including, for four years, Fidel Castro, Cuba's president.

Then she met and married Olivier Duhamel. Even when Victor told her of her husband's behaviour, she refused to believe it, her children say.

There is now a sad reckoning in France.

"How do you resist the call of the flesh, liberated from all restraints? How do you say no when imposed sexuality is labelled as emancipation?" Malka Marcovich says in her book L'Autre Héritage de 1968: La Face Cachée de la Révolution Sexuelle (The Other Heritage of 1968: The Hidden Face of the Sexual Revolution), published in 2018. "So people, male and female, who were dragged into a premature sexuality, now seen as violent, preferred to keep quiet."

Emmanuel Pierrat, lawyer of French writer Gabriel Matzneff, leaves Paris's courthouse on Feb. 12, 2020. The legal woes of the once-celebrated writer, Matzneff, are mounting. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

Matzneff pushed the "call of the flesh" even further, drawing up an open letter in 1977 calling for sex with minors under 15 to be decriminalized. Sixty-nine French intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre signed. So did two future cabinet ministers. One of them was Bernard Kouchner, Victor's father. 

After Springora's book was published, Kouchner recanted in an interview with the French magazine Le Point in January 2020. "That was idiocy. I didn't even read it. A friend said I should sign it."

And in an interview with Le Nouvel Obs, a French magazine, on Jan. 17, author Camille Kouchner offered a harsh verdict on that time, a verdict that, along with her stepfather, finds her mother guilty.

"Liberty, women, the couple, joyous infidelity, intelligent modernity — I was brought up with these ideas. My mother more or less abandoned us. This book let me release my pent-up anger against her, and to love her. I don't try to excuse her."


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.