The publication of La Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner reveals how incest is everpresent at the highest levels of French society, even among the most glamorous, powerful, bohemian, left wing intellectual Parisian élite, known as “la gauche caviar” (champagne socialists). In France, one in ten people say they are victims of incest according to Ipsos.
Camille Kouchner is the daughter of the late feminist, political scientist and lecturer Évelyne Pisier, and Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs under President Nicolas Sarkozy, having previously been a minister during Mitterand’s presidency. In 2010, the Jerusalem Post considered Bernard Kouchner the fifteenth most influential Jew in the world.
“Capitalism has neither the capacity, nor the morality, nor the ethics to solve the problems of poverty,” Fidel Castro
La Familia Grande opens with the death from cancer of Évelyne Pisier, alone in hospital. Estranged from her mother, Camille Kouchner remembers the revolutionary romanticism of Évelyne and her network, along with their libertarian attitudes and derision of conventional Catholic morality. The 1960s were a time when the line between seduction and sexual abuse was blurred.
Camille reveals how families at the top of the social hierarchy intermarry, are friends, and lead a privileged and distinctive lifestyle setting them apart from other French citizens. Her writing is punchy, elegant and interrogative, punctuated by dark asides and wry Gallicisms.
A Family Divided
Born in Hanoi, after the divorce of her parents, Évelyne settles in Nice with her mother and her sister, Marie-France, who makes her début in François Truffaut’s 1962 film, Antoine and Colette, and embarks on a brief passionate romance with the older, married director. The two sisters are icons for the French intellectual left.
From 1964, Évelyne has a four-year romance with Fidel Castro. She subsequently marries Bernard Kouchner with whom she has three children. His increased absences from the family lead to a gradual estrangement.
Évelyne remarries. Her husband (Olivier Duhamel, unnamed in the book) is one of France’s most high-profile intellectuals and media personalities. His father was a minister under President Pompidou, and his mother, the editor Colette, became the wife of Claude Gallimard, CEO of the publishing house.
Camille describes her stepfather as being a combination of the French singer and songwriter, Michel Berger, and actor-singer, Eddy Mitchell. He teaches his three stepchildren, “Schubert and the tarot, the law and la belote,” and is warm and loving, unlike her unavailable, absent father. He “enriches” her life.
When not in the fashionable St Germain des Prés district of the Left Bank, the family holidays in Sanary in the Var. Theirs is a licentious universe where adults enjoy skinny-dipping in the pool and sunbathe naked. They play scrabble and poker. Heated intellectual debates are fuelled by rosé wine and wreathed in cigarette smoke. Photos of members of the family in the nude adorn the walls. Adults and children kiss each other on the lips. Sexual precocity is the norm. “Fucking is our liberty” is how Camille’s mother puts it. What all the adults care about most though, when it comes to their their children, is for them to do well at school and get high grades.
Alongside the Duhamels and their intellectual friends staying at Sanary, are political heavyweights — ministers Rocard, Cresson, Bérégovoy, Jospin. All are part of the extended family, dubbed “La Familia grande” by Camille’s stepfather. His epithet is also a reference to the Cuban revolution and communist Chile under Allende — the country from where Olivier and Évelyne adopt two children.
When Évelyne’s parents commit suicide — her father in 1986, and her mother two years later — the darkness comes.
Permissiveness v. Perversion
The narrative becomes increasingly intimate in a profoundly disturbing way as the manipulation and perversion that lie behind the seductive, gilded glamour of bohemian living and libertarian attitudes are exposed.
The seemingly warm, adoring stepfather who has such a special bond with his stepchildren turns out to have a very different perception of what “love” is to “normal” people.
In one key chapter, Camille accuses her charming, erudite, all-powerful, unnamed stepfather, of raping her twin brother, renamed “Victor” out of discretion, during nocturnal visits to his room over a period of two years in the late 1980s. Age 14, the teenage twins do not know what “incest” is, and say nothing to their older brother, Colin.
“Guilt is like a serpent . . . I was possessed by guilt like a poison flooding my heart and mind . . . Guilt became my new twin.”
It is only twenty years later, when Colin tells the twins that he wants his kids to spend some time with Évelyne at idyllic Sanary in the Var, that the pair break their silence. Colin is warned about what could happen if his kids go to Sanary alone.
Shame and anger about the abuse, and the dysfunctional nature of the relationship, causes Victor to withdraw. Camille tells their mother who goes on the defensive, choosing to protect her husband and to avoid a scandal. “As in the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie, on the Left, we only wash our dirty laundry within the family.”
Although according to Camille, within their “bubble of powerful people in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a great many of them knew about it but turned a blind eye, pretending nothing was wrong.”
Évelyne quarrels with her sister. In 2011, Marie-France is found dead in her swimming pool, bizarrely ensconced in wrought-iron chair. Évelyne turns to alcohol and is verbally abusive when drunk.
“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel”
A child has no choice but to be in their home with their family, making them perfect captives for the abusive family member. The key rules at play within families when abuse and addiction are present are: Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. Almost 90% of sexually abused children are abused by someone they know, who considers that they are showing the children “love”.
The dominant male power in the home is traditionally masculine; with the figure of the father embodying authority, discipline, the Law. For a child to say “No” to a father figure is extremely difficult especially if they are also generous and fun, which is confusing.
Even later on in life, despite being haunted by the abuse, victims do not always have the inner strength to face the legal process which can involve wounding confrontations. The Media as court and judge replaces the law court judge and jury, allowing victims to talk of their ordeal when they choose, often resulting a far greater social condemnation than that imposed by criminal law.
Such has been the case for Olivier Duhamel against whom the charge of incest has been made. He has resigned from his academic and media roles, most notably as the head of the National Foundation of Political Sciences (FNSP) which oversees the prestigious university, Sciences Po. He also presented a show on Europe 1 radio and was an analyst on LCI TV.
Enjoying immense social, cultural, educational and financial prestige, Duhamel’s fall from grace has been as extreme and publicly bruising as that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn — viewed as the potential winner of France’s 2012 presidential election — who was arrested in May 2011 on charges of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel worker in New York. He resigned as head of the International Monetary Fund.
“Of course, I thought my book might seem obscene because of my family’s fame. Then I thought to myself, this is exactly what needs to be done,” Camille Kouchner writes in the Le Nouvel Obs.
Her father, Bernard Kouchner, said that a “heavy secret that has been weighing on us for too long has happily been lifted. I applaud the courage of my daughter Camille.”
Dangerous Liaisons : Libertines on Trial
The first public testimonies against sexual abuse and incest in France date from 1986 when Eva Thomas spoke publicly on TV channel Antenne 2 about being raped by her father at the age of 15. Her book, Le viol du silence (The Rape of Silence) came out in 2000.
In spring 2019, revelations of a secret boys’ club of journalists known as the “League of LOL” that mocked and harassed women in a campaign of online bullying a decade ago came to light when one of the victims finally spoke out.
A series of controversies have made the headlines over the past year. Former French skating champion Sarah Abitbol writes about being sexually assaulted age 15 by her coach Gilles Beyer, and denounces the sports world which protected him and still protects him, in her book Un si long silence (Such a Long Silence), published in January 2020.
Also in January 2020, the director Christophe Ruggia was formally indicted by Paris prosecutors, accused of sexually assaulting the actress Adèle Haenel when she was 15. She stated in Mediapart that Ruggia sexually harassed her from the age of 12 after being cast in his film The Devils.
Haenel and other French actresses walked out of France’s Cesar awards in February 2020 after filmmaker Roman Polanski — wanted in the US for the statutory rape of a 13 year old girl in 1977 — won best director.
And in August 2020, prosecutors began an investigation of Christophe Girard, a former deputy mayor of Paris and supporter of the paedophile writer Gabriel Matzneff, over the possible rape of a young man. There are shades of Lolita to publisher Vanessa Springora’s book, Le Consentment (Consent), of her grooming and sexual relationship, age 13, at the hands of aforementioned award-winning author Gabriel Matzneff, age 50 at the time, and well known in Parisian literary circles for having a liking for adolescent girls and boys. He even wrote about his paedophilia in Les Moins de seize ans, (Those Under Sixteen), published in 1974.
La Familia Grande has received wall-to-wall Media coverage in France, and globally, including reviews in the Financial Times and The Guardian. A whole new generation of women and men will not put up with what was once deemed to be “acceptable” in the pursuit of pleasure, and in the name of freedom. The #metooinceste and #BalanceTonPorc movemens are making waves across the Channel.
France’s gender equality minister, Marlene Schiappa, is the youngest member of President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet. She has much work to do. It’s about time France had its reckoning.
La Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner | éditions du Seuil 208pp | 7 January 2021 | ISBN: 978-2021472660
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