Camille Kouchner’s Familia Grande: ‘I knew my stepfather’s games… but with my brother, too?’

Stepping inside Camille Kouchner’s home near Place de la République in Paris, one is aware of the stark contrast between the world the author grew up in and the one she now inhabits – and not just because it is on the opposite bank of the Seine. One senses an invisible frontier between past and present, a line finally drawn under a childhood frozen in time by a family secret kept for 20 years.

We sit down in her kitchen-living room, giving on to a peaceful, leafy courtyard, the walls lined with bookcases. Petite and warm, Kouchner is wearing jeans, black Converse trainers and a grey cashmere scarf, her auburn hair tied loosely in a bun. I am here to talk to her about her memoir, La Familia Grande, which sent shock waves into the heart of the French establishment when it was published at the beginning of last year. In it, Kouchner accuses her stepfather of sexually abusing her twin brother when they were teenagers.

That stepfather is Olivier Duhamel, an intellectual heavyweight well known in France as president of the National Foundation of Political Science (FNSP), the board that oversees the governance of Sciences Po, the prestigious university attended by much of France’s political class. Also a leading political commentator on radio and television, Duhamel sat at the summit of French cultural and intellectual life – until, that is, his stepdaughter’s revelation…

The book, translated into English by Adriana Hunter and published this month in the UK, sold out within days in France and prompted a moral, social and political crisis. “My book came at a time when we were finally ready as a society to confront this issue,” Kouchner says. Within hours of its publication, other incest survivors were posting their traumatic stories on social networks and the movement #MeTooIncest was born. Duhamel, then 70, resigned all his positions and withdrew from public life. Within a fortnight Emmanuel Macron became involved. He praised Camille Kouchner for having “the courage of a sister who could no longer keep quiet” and began pressing for legislative change. Parliament in turn began studying a bill to tighten the rules on the age of consent and incest. For their part, the French media were prompt to judge this hedonist generation of leftwing intellectuals for whom personal freedom seemed to outrank morality – and the wellbeing of children.

A year earlier, in 2020, Vanessa Springora’s Consent(translated into English by Natasha Lehrer), had shone another ugly light on the mores of the 70s and 80s in French intellectual quarters. Her testimony revealed how, aged 13, she was first groomed and then abused for two years by the 50-year-old writer Gabriel Matzneff who was renowned for his sexual taste for adolescents. He even published an essay entitled “Under 16 Years Old” in 1974, in which he wrote “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure”. At the time, nobody batted an eyelid (under French law children of any age could arguably “consent” to sex with an adult, including blood relatives). Worse, Matzneff, just like Olivier Duhamel, manipulated the very young teenagers he abused into believing that they had power, that it was also their choice, that they were equals.

While Matzneff always carried with him an admiring letter from the French president François Mitterrand, in case of a police visit or arrest, Olivier Duhamel did not need such a keepsake to feel safe. For decades, he relied on his aura, intellectual authority, and friendships within elite Parisian circles to impose silence on his stepchildren and the “familia grande”.

The familia grande was the name Duhamel, an admirer of Latin American revolutionaries, had given to the ever growing band of friends, compañeros, brothers and sisters that made up the Kouchner clan. The first half of the book is dedicated to the author’s apparently enchanted childhood among this illustrious group.

Kouchner, 46, was brought up in the 1970s and 80s on the bohemian Left Bank in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and lived in the shadow of the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens. Except now she can no longer walk through the streets of her childhood, rue Madame, rue d’Assas, rue Joseph Bara. “Perversity has stolen them from me,” she says.

The family was at the heart of the left-leaning French cultural elite. Her mother was Évelyne Pisier, a renowned feminist and political scientist who had had a four-year affair with Fidel Castro in the 60s. Her father is Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières, and a key player in different governments on the left and right: he was health minister under François Mitterrand and then Jacques Chirac, and foreign affairs minister under Nicolas Sarkozy. Her aunt, Marie-France Pisier, was talent-spotted aged 16 by the New Wave film director François Truffaut and enjoyed a long screen acting career.

Évelyne Pisier held many prestigious positions both at universities and publishing houses and Kouchner’s bright, handsome and charismatic father, Bernard, was voted “France’s favourite public figure” in opinion polls. Following his divorce from Évelyne in the early 80s he married the French journalist Christine Ockrent and together they became one of the biggest power couples of the 1990s and 2000s. Meanwhile, Évelyne fell in love post-divorce with Olivier Duhamel. Ten years her junior, he was another great and attractive mind, who would rapidly become one of France’s most eminent constitutional law professors as well as president of FNSP. He was himself the son of a government minister in the time of Georges Pompidou and of a publisher who remarried into the Gallimard family.

Évelyne and Oliver’s friends – the familia grande – were a mix of well-known writers, ministers, lawyers, publishers and film producers, in other words, France’s progressive elite. They lived on Paris’s Left Bank and spent summers together in Sanary-sur-Mer, a Mediterranean resort between Bandol and Toulon on the Côte d’Azur where Duhamel owned two houses. There, they debated, drank, smoked, taught their children to play poker, and paraded naked around the swimming pool. Freedom was everything, they told their children. At night they danced under the stars to rock’n’roll. In the familia grande, nothing was out of bounds. Camille Kouchner remembers feeling both impressed and terrified by this all-devouring freedom, and especially by her mother’s views on free will.

Camille Kouchner’s stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, who has retired from public life since the book’s publication.
Camille Kouchner’s stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, who has retired from public life since the book’s publication. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

“Today, I find her views totally stupefying,” she tells me. “My children are free to debate and argue but never do I for one second consider that they have the free will to decide these things for themselves.” It took years for her to understand how destabilising and destructive her mother and stepfather’s views were. What was especially insidious, she says, was that, “nothing was obscene. We were a very intellectual family. We talked about everything. Our mother expected us to develop and exercise our free will from very early on.” Instead, the children felt lost without boundaries, unsure what to do with this freedom.

In the book Kouchner writes:

‘You see,’ my mother explained, ‘I first made love at 12. Making love is freedom. So, what are you waiting for?’ This had a profound impression on me. At 11, I made a point of seducing every boy at school, taking my mother and aunt as role models. I French-kissed boys and invited them to dance. With just a smile, I taught my uptight girlfriends a lesson: ‘Sex is a game, not a prize!’ This met with opprobrium and perhaps jealousy from children my age, but I pretended not to mind.

For Camille, who lived in awe of these adult role models, a cloud first appeared in her sun-kissed life when she was about to turn 11 and her maternal grandfather shot himself. Two years later, her grandmother, who had been in many ways a surrogate mother, also killed herself. Her world then cracked definitively the day her twin brother confided to her that their revered stepfather was sexually abusing him on a regular basis. Barely 14 at the time, they weren’t sure what to think or feel. He asked her whether she thought what their stepfather did to him was wrong. “I didn’t. He (our stepfather) was just teaching us, that was all. We weren’t prudes,” she thought at the time. “I don’t know if we should be angry,” wondered her brother.

The twins, wishing to protect their mother, kept the abuse secret from her for 20 years. And for those 20 years, Camille was consumed by guilt, while her brother buried it all. “Guilt is like a snake,” she writes. “You expect it to uncoil in response to certain stimuli, but you don’t always know when it will lash out and paralyse you.”

The secret finally came out in 2008 when they told their mother. The pain however did not stop there. Évelyne decided to support her husband against her children, and even accused her son of seducing her husband.

When Kouchner’s beloved aunt, Marie-France, urged her sister to leave Duhamel – to no avail – the two sisters, who had been so close all their lives, fell out irremediably. Three years later, Marie-France was found dead, wedged in a chair at the bottom of the swimming pool at her house on the French Riviera. A police investigation concluded she had taken her own life. It was not until Évelyne, who had become an alcoholic, died, in 2017, that Camille Kouchner could finally write her family’s story – revealing the secrets that may have lain behind her aunt’s death – and try to come to terms with it.

Her style is raw, breathless; she doesn’t pull any punches:

I knew their little games. Some of the parents and children at Sanary kissed one another on the mouth. My stepfather would ‘warm up’ his friends’ wives. The friends came on to the nannies. Young men were offered to older women. I remember, under the table, my stepfather stroking a woman’s leg. I remember my mother’s explanation when I relayed it to her: ‘There is no harm. I know about it. Fucking is our freedom.’

But was it allowed with my brother, too?

When the book was published, the new generation of journalists were quick to dig up and challenge some of the French left’s moral battles of the 1970s, such as a public letter published by the daily newspapers Libération and Le Monde in 1977 defending the idea that sex with minors was a liberation for both parties. Written by Gabriel Matzneff, it was signed by luminaries such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. Although it’s important to understand the context of this letter (a specific trial and the left’s fight against homophobia), reading it today sends shivers down the spine.

“The generations just don’t understand each other,” says Kouchner. “Yesterday’s feminism is not today’s feminism. We have other priorities than they had, like climate change.” As a mother of two young children, she can certify that her generation of cousins and friends who spend summers together “certainly bring our children up very differently from our parents”.

Her aim, however, is not to put the 1968 generation on trial. “I am not a sociologist,” she says. “I did not intend to denounce them. This is a book about relationships, and more importantly it is a mother and daughter story. Of course, if a broader narrative comes out of it, all the better.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Kouchner does not condemn her mother. On the contrary, she insists, she owes her almost everything: “She taught me how to think.” As for her father and her parents’ friends: “I love them very much. We were very happy. I owe them so much, too.” For her, there is only one criminal, the man who wrecked the lives of an entire family, and that is Olivier Duhamel. When in 2011 Camille’s brother told the police that he did not wish to press charges, this proved “a profound relief and huge disappointment” to her. As a lawyer and senior lecturer in law, she knew when she began writing that the statute of limitation would soon apply, meaning Duhamel could not be prosecuted. “There can be no justice,” she says.

The book has had a huge impact, however. Three months after it was published, French MPs voted to back a new law that would for the first time in France set an age of consent at 15 and prohibit sex with relatives aged under 18. An independent commission investigating incest and sexual abuse set up at the same time delivered its first conclusions a few weeks ago. Among its 20 proposals are better care for victims, clearer process for professionals flagging up incest and abuse, improved legislation, and a national campaign aimed to raise awareness and spread information about incest and sexual abuse.

In France, one in 10 people have suffered from sexual abuse or incest during childhood, and four out of 10 adults in whom children have confided did nothing. Every year an estimated 160,000 children are victims of sexual abuse, and the commission particularly wants professionals in contact with children, such as teachers and doctors, to be trained better so they can identify and help potential victims.

For Kouchner, even if there can be no justice in the case of her twin, there can be literature. “I had wanted to write for a long time. I love literature that is grounded,” she tells me. Deborah Levy’s memoir trilogy is an inspiration and so was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which Kouchner read as she started writing La Familia Grande. “Selasi did not write to settle accounts, and neither did I.… [I wrote the book] for my children, not against my stepfather.” And she intends to keep on writing.

The publication of her book has not provoked new drama in her family. Quite the opposite. Her mother and stepfather’s friends got in touch: “They understood that I was not judging them,” she says. Her twin brother, whom she calls Victor in the book, gave it his blessing. He has gone on to put the trauma behind him, marrying and becoming a father. However, she prefers not to talk about him in order to protect his privacy and because, “this is a sister’s story not a victim’s”. As for her father, who was mostly absent from her life as a child, busy as he was with Médecins Sans Frontières or being a minister, he has repaired his relationship with his children over the past year. “What has happened between us has been magnificent,” Kouchner says – a glimmer of a happy ending to this darkest of tales.

The Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner is published by Octopus (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply