How did another top Frenchman come to grief in New York?

Five days after Richard Descoings' death, Manhattan police still can't say how Nicolas Sarkozy's close friend died

The dead man was found naked on his $600-a-night bed on the seventh floor of Manhattan's luxurious Michelangelo hotel. Blood was coming out of his mouth, his laptop and mobile phone had been tossed on to a ledge four floors below. The ornate room, which contained several empty medication and drink bottles, was in a state of disarray.

His name was Richard Descoings, a prominent member of the French establishment. Five days after his sudden demise, police in New York remain unable to rule out foul play. Although an autopsy has now been completed, they are telling reporters that no official cause of death has yet been established.

So it goes in a strange and increasingly sleazy story that is being closely watched on both sides of the Atlantic. Among recent twists is the revelation that the 53-year-old married man, a close friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy, had been using his personal computer to trawl through what detectives have described as "gay hook-up websites". Apparently, that news did not surprise his widow, Nadia Marik-Descoings, who arrived in the US from France on Wednesday. According to the New York Post, she told police that her late husband was "really into men" and that she had been well aware of his homosexual interests before she married him.

Investigators now believe that Mr Descoings, who was the highly regarded director of the Institute of Political Studies, known as Sciences Po, one of Paris's elite grandes écoles, had one or more visitors to his bedroom the night before his death. Their motives, as well as their identities, remain unclear, but they appear to have left before 10.30pm on Monday. It is only two months since Mr Descoings talked about the possibility that he had been the victim of an organised smear campaign after France's establishment newspaper Le Monde "forcibly outed" him as gay.

In an interview with Le Monde's left-wing rival, Libération, he claimed to "reject any paranoia", but said: "at a given moment, they started talking about sex, money and culture in general. We had my forced outing in the columns of Le Monde. I do not see what my alleged homosexuality had to do with anything."

Conspiracy theorists may see things differently, however. During his illustrious career in academia, Mr Descoings had been criticised by right-leaning politicians for attempting to open up Sciences Po to more students from underprivileged or ethnic minority backgrounds.

Opponents, who dubbed the move an exercise in positive discrimination and tokenism, also made hay with the fact that – despite his socialist credentials – Mr Descoings was handsomely renumerated. He earned upwards of £250,000 a year, a salary greater even than President Sarkozy's. France's news media have so far remained typically cautious in their reporting of the death, alluding only fleetingly to some of the headlines in the US tabloids, which have been quick to point out that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an alumnus of Sciences Po, recently came to a different sort of grief in a Manhattan hotel.

Some eyebrows have, however, been raised at the appearance of Guillaume Pépy, the head of the country's state railways, the SNCF, on the scene. A flamboyant figure, Mr Pépy was one of Mr Descoings' closest friends. He was in Montreal at the time of the death, and flew to New York last week to comfort Ms Marik-Descoings and assist her in dealing with the authorities.

Among the few concrete facts that have been confirmed is that Mr Descoings arrived in New York on 1 April to attend a global conference for university presidents being held at Columbia University. He was scheduled to meet a colleague in the lobby of the Michelangelo hotel at 7.30am on Tuesday, but never appeared.

Hotel workers went into the room at 9.30am and 11am, but left after coming to the conclusion that he was sleeping. It was only at 12.45pm, after several phone calls to the room had gone unanswered, that a security guard discovered him naked, on top of the bed, and not breathing. Emergency services rushed to the scene but were unable to revive him. Police later came to the conclusion that they were responsible for the state of disarray the room was left in. They added that there was no visible trauma to his body and ruled out robbery as a motive in any crime.

Guests in nearby bedrooms say they believe that, judging by the noise, as many as three men may have been with Mr Descoings the night prior to his death. The exact cause will have to wait until toxicology tests are completed in a fortnight. Until then, the investigation continues.

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