The incestuous sins of the soixante-huitards
The secrets and lies of the Castro-loving 1960s revolutionaries who became part of the French establishment
This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Camille Kouchner was in her early teens when her twin brother told her that their stepfather, the French political analyst, Olivier Duhamel, had come into his bedroom and seduced him. “Do you think it’s wrong?” the boy asked. More than 30 years on, Kouchner is hazy about the exact timing of the exchange, but she remembers her reply clearly: “Because it’s him, it has to be OK. He’s teaching us, that’s all. We’re not buttoned up.”
Bottling things up, however, is just what Kouchner and others did. La Familia Grande, her memoir of abuse and secrecy at the heart of France’s intelligentsia, is about the resulting damage. The alleged attacks lasted two or three years. The twins were sworn to silence, but Kouchner found it increasingly difficult to live with a pact she felt provided cover for a paedophile. When they mustered the courage to open up to their mother, two decades after the event, she stood by her man. It took another dozen years for Kouchner, now 45, to bear witness publicly.
The publication of La Familia Grande in January had an explosive effect
The publication of La Familia Grande in January had an explosive effect. Duhamel’s prominence cannot be overstated. A renowned constitutional law expert, he was ubiquitous on radio and TV; the august bodies he headed included the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques and Le Siècle, an exclusive for club for politicians, businessmen and journalists; he was regarded as a potential member of the Conseil constitutionnel, which acts as France’s Supreme Court.
When the scandal broke Duhamel resigned from all his positions, tweeting that he was “the target of personal attacks” and needed “to protect institutions for which I work”. The taint spread anyway. Media reports confirmed Kouchner’s charge that many of Duhamel’s influential friends had known about the allegations and looked the other way. Those forced to quit included the director of Sciences Po, a prestigious university attended by the five most recent French presidents.
Although it is not the first testimony of its kind in France, La Familia Grande is credited with lifting the lid on a taboo subject. It set off a social media campaign, with tens of thousands of users sharing their experience under the hashtag #Metooincest. One reason for this impact is the book’s wider cast of characters. The author is the daughter of Bernard Kouchner, a humanitarian grandee, Socialist heavyweight and former foreign minister; his current wife is a celebrity journalist; Camille’s aunt is the late actress-filmmaker Marie-France Pisier, to whom La Familia Grande is dedicated. All three are blameless, but the tale has the appeal of an exposé of rottenness among the rich and famous.
Its publication was also timely. Parliament had been discussing a bill to change French law on consent. To convict someone of rape — even of a child — prosecutors until then had to prove violence or coercion. A “consensual” relationship with a minor was a lesser offence with a shorter statute of limitation. Following the release of La Familia Grande, legislation creating a crime of statutory rape for all victims aged under 15 was rushed through parliament.
Crucially, the book chimes with the anti-elite spirit of the times. Reviewers have described it as an indictment of the caste of insiders that runs France and have each other’s backs. Such comments are correct, but they miss a key aspect of Kouchner’s story: Duhamel and his circle belong to a subset of the French elite that has remained wedded, at least in words, to the revolutionary ethos of the 1960s. Génération, a celebrated two-volume portrait of upwardly-mobile rebels by Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, describes how they made their place in entertainment, journalism, business and government.
The election of François Mitterrand in 1981 was a milestone. The Socialist leader had promised “rupture with capitalism” and his accession to France’s all-powerful presidency was a welcome development for clever Young Turks who yearned for institutional influence while holding on to the old radical rhetoric. Nineteenth-century tropes that no longer cut ice with ordinary voters were perpetuated in France’s corridors of power well into the new millennium. When the Socialist employment minister was replaced in 2000, her staff saw her off by singing the Communist anthem The Internationale.
Camille Kouchner was raised by such establishment revolutionaries. In 1964 her mother, Évelyne Pisier, travelled to Cuba during a summer break from law studies. Kouchner gives few details about the trip, but accounts by Pisier and others provide an interesting perspective on later events. The visit had been organised by a group of communist students led by a young Bernard Kouchner.
Soon after their arrival, Fidel Castro dropped by their hostel in Santiago and was smitten by the 23-year-old Pisier. That night he took her and a few of her friends on a tour of the Sierra Maestra, the cradle of the Cuban Revolution, on board shiny black Buicks; at dawn the students were returned to their hostel, except Pisier who followed Castro to his residence.
The two would spend most nights together for the remainder of the group’s Cuban venture. Una Liutkus, a lifelong friend of Pisier who was among the youthful pilgrims, recalls that a chauffeur would pick her up from their Havana hotel after dinner and drive her to wherever El Comandante was staying.
He constantly moved temporary homes as he feared assassination and always had a gun with him. Pisier found the sound of Castro’s holster belt dropping to the floor when he took it off incredibly sexy, she told Liutkus at the time.
Soon after their arrival, Fidel Castro dropped by their hostel in Santiago and was smitten by the 23-year-old Pisier
The communist students were put up in a five-star hotel. Such special treatment didn’t go down well with the purists among them, who insisted on sharing the experience of peasants on sugarcane fields. Half the French contingent declined an invitation by Fidel to go lobster fishing on board a yacht seized from drug traffickers. Pisier was not among the naysayers. It is reasonable to suspect that her privileged access may have reconciled her to the idea that absolute rule and its perks are justified as long as those who enjoy them are on the side of justice.
The affair with the Líder Máximo was no mere holiday romance. Castro flew Pisier and her mother back to Cuba a year later. The long-distance relationship continued for four years — before she settled on Bernard Kouchner, whom she married in 1970.
Evidently gifted, Pisier became the first woman to teach public law at a French university and went on to become a top culture ministry official. She remained devoted to the Cuban revolution throughout. She taught her Sorbonne students about “the specificity of guevarism” and told her children stories of El Che at bath time, Camille tells us.
In the early 1980s, Pisier divorced Bernard Kouchner, who was too busy saving children around the world to look after his own family, and started a new life with Duhamel, a younger, up-and-coming fellow jurist. Although he came from a wealthy, conservative background — his father had served as a minister in centre-right governments — Duhamel was impeccably left-wing. His main international interest was Chile. He had written a book about Salvador Allende, whose martyrdom at the hands of US-backed generals mobilised 1970s progressives against what they saw as the main hegemon of the day.
In Camille Kouchner’s telling, Duhamel was prone to homilies about his anti-imperialist heroes. When she was sent to stay in a dreary summer camp in the US, he wrote her a letter that read: “As you despair in your camp for colonialists, let me tell you about the courage of the emancipators who struggled for independence in South America in the early nineteenth century. There is one you must have heard of: El Libertador, Simón Bolívar.” He then announced he was about to adopt a Chilean baby boy, whom he would name Simon. Kouchner uses the phrase La Familia Grande to highlight the immersion of the Duhamel-Pisier clan in Latin America’s revolutionary folklore.
Much of the book is set in Duhamel’s family home on the Riviera, where a widening circle of acquaintances were entertained summer after summer. Guests initially included “my mother’s childhood friends and fellow activists, former Maoists and Trotskyites”, she writes.
The couple’s social elevation during the Mitterrand years brought intellectuals, top lawyers and prime ministers to the commune-like atmosphere of the villa. The children’s bedroom, Kouchner recalls, was covered in street posters from the 1968 student unrest. She remembers going to sleep staring at the ironic slogan: “Sois jeune et tais-toi.” (Be young and shut up.)
La Familia Grande is no conservative tract against la pensée 68. Kouchner repeatedly pays tribute to her mother’s rebellious, uninhibited spirit. The book opens with her funeral in 2017, when the children agree that she should not wear knickers to her grave. Kouchner rehearses her reply in case the undertakers object: “No way! My mother never wore underwear! We will check!”
A relaxed attitude to nudity and sex is celebrated as a family tradition that runs through the female line. The maternal grandmother left her husband, an overseas official, to raise her daughters in Bohemian freedom on the mainland in the 1950s. Kouchner thought she was “incredibly courageous” and fondly remembers the grandmotherly advice bestowed on her prepubescent self on how to have orgasms while riding a horse.
Kouchner is grateful to Pisier for carrying on this legacy and upholding freedom as a “supreme value”. Children were treated as equals: the mother was plain “Évelyne” at home and she freely shared her ideas and enthusiasm with them. “She was passionate and wrote relentlessly,” the daughter gushes.
But her mother’s scorn for bourgeois conventions soon acquires a hard edge. When she catches her daughter engrossed in a book by the Comtesse de Ségur, a nineteenth-century children’s author who was once read by all dutiful French girls, Pisier snaps: “Please hide when you read that stuff.” And when the daughter is distraught over her parents’ divorce, she is told: “You have no right to cry. I am much happier this way … Divorce is freedom.” The tears of a six-year-old are resented as an insult to everything her foremothers had fought for.
“Freedom” is everywhere in Pisier’s world. Her last book, which gives a glowing account of her affair with the Cuban dictator, is entitled Et soudain, la liberté (suddenly, freedom). The word is given an all-purpose, militant meaning by the grandmother as well. In a tirade worthy of Miss Havisham, she exhorts Camille to make her way in the world by using her female wiles: “Study, but do not forget to seduce men. You must learn how to play their games. Boys at your feet! Freedom!”
The grandmother killed herself in 1988, when Camille was 13. The girl’s distress was again angrily dismissed by Pisier, who mourned her mother in her own way and began drinking heavily. Faced with her daughter’s silent pleading, she insisted: “I will not talk about this. It’s my freedom.” Ultimately, the word “freedom” is used to end any discussion of such unpleasant things as feelings or responsibility.
The relationship with Duhamel is also depicted as the slow discovery by a starry-eyed child that high principles have a dark side. Kouchner initially worships her stepfather as everything her father was not: attentive, always available and lots of fun. The theme of sex is introduced with small but increasingly jarring brush strokes. Swimsuits come off at the poolside and Duhamel pokes fun at “uptight ones” who keep theirs on. As years go by, he discovers photography, snaps away at guests and sticks pictures of naked bodies on the walls. Young Camille spots her stepfather touching friends’ wives as the friends chat up the nannies. Her puzzlement over such behaviour is given short shrift by the mother: “I know all that and it’s as it should be. Screwing is our freedom.”
In due course, such “freedom” was extended to the younger generation. At age 15, Kouchner says she was encouraged to give backrubs to adults. Her older brother was 17 when he lost his virginity to an older woman friend entrusted by his mother with the mission. This is the context set by Kouchner before, half-way through the story, she relates her stepfather’s nocturnal visitations to her twin brother’s room.
The rest of the book details her struggle with her own and other people’s denial. It was a lonely battle. The brother, whom she calls Victor, was keen to move on and forget. Camille could at times convince herself that it was none of her business. But she was increasingly racked by feelings of complicity and guilt, which she describes as a “hydra” spreading its tentacles over the years. It was only when she and other siblings had children of their own and she feared for their safety that she got Victor to talk to their mother.
Instead of siding with her children, Pisier accused them of waiting to air their dirty secret until it was too late for her to act: “If you had spoken earlier none of this would have happened,” she said. The only relative to express outrage was Marie-France Pisier, Kouchner’s film-star aunt. She broke with her sister Évelyne over her refusal to leave Duhamel and spoke about the abuse to anyone who wanted to hear. Few did and the wall of silence did not break.
When Marie-France died in bizarre circumstances (in 2011 she was found at the bottom of her pool, her head trapped in a chair) Kouchner was more alone than ever.
In 2017, after her mother’s death from cancer, a meeting with lawyers confirmed what she had never fully acknowledged: a crime had indeed been committed and she had been a collateral victim, not an accomplice. A huge burden was lifted from her shoulders. But by that time it was too late for a criminal investigation. And still no-one was willing to talk.
Why, with many people aware of the allegations, did they take so many years to come out? Cowardice, Kouchner argues, is not the sole explanation: “Some were delighted to have to remain silent. Such a duty testified to their membership of a certain world … On the left as well as in the grande bourgeoisie, you did not wash your dirty linen in public.”
Keeping the secret was more than a mark of personal fealty: it was a sign of moral rectitude. When challenged to speak out, Kouchner is told, a family friend replied: “I won’t join the lynch mob.” Others reportedly said: “Those kids are jerks. They’re harassing their mother.” Pisier called the twins “rats” and “perverts”, and even accused Victor of having tried to seduce her husband to take him away from her. “Your brother deceived me,” she told Kouchner. “I am the victim here.”
Such anger was rooted in a sense of ideological purity, as was the silent support Duhamel received. In the eyes of his defenders, Duhamel had always stood for freedom and against repressive taboos. He believed that children and adults were equals. If someone is on the side of virtue, it is easy to convince yourself that they can do no wrong.
This type of thinking is reminiscent of antinomianism, a religious view adopted by some radical sects during the English Civil War: saints, by definition, cannot sin; thus all norms are illegitimate. Similar beliefs were in vogue in the revolutionary ferment of 1968 France, whose main slogan was “Il est interdit d’interdire” (forbidding is forbidden).
No one is suggesting a direct link between soixante-huitard ideas — which were in many ways liberating — and tolerance of paedophilia. Kouchner’s tales illustrates a general point: any creed that sees the world in black and white — liberators v. oppressors, the elect v. the reprobates, us v. them — carries a magnetic force that confuses the moral compass.
La Familia Grande is a case study in ideological exculpation. The presumption of innocence enjoyed by the righteous is perfectly encapsulated in the words Kouchner came to rue: “Because it’s him, it has to be OK.”
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