Blood on carpets of Paris: The Aids trial has exposed the shadowy role of civil servants who take decisions without informing their superiors, writes Julian Nundy

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The Independent Online
TWICE this year, Georgina Dufoix has found herself at the centre of controversy.

In February, she had to explain the part she played in letting George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, into France for medical treatment, a decision that nearly brought down the government. Last month, she had to appear on the witness-stand to be questioned on why her ministry had allowed the distribution of HIV-infected blood products.

Both affairs, however, have less to do with Mrs Dufoix than with the civil service and, more particularly, the ministerial cabinets or private offices, which are the buffer and the filter between a minister and the outside world.

Mrs Dufoix's latest public appearance was on 24 July, when she took the witness-stand at the trial of four doctors accused of knowingly allowing the distribution of HIV-infected blood products in 1985, although safe products had been developed. Mrs Dufoix had been in charge of the Social Affairs Ministry, encompassing the Health Ministry, at the time.

Last year, using a somewhat injudicious formula, she said she felt 'responsible but not guilty' for what had happened. This raised an outcry with critics alleging that this showed that French ministers believed themselves above ordinary reproach. Before the Aids trial, Mrs Dufoix was in the news in February when she resigned as head of the French Red Cross for the part she had played in admitting Habash into France for medical treatment. She also left a post of adviser at the Elysee presidential palace.

In the Habash affair the civil servants, if the official versions are to be believed, took too much on themselves. Francois Scheer, the secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, and Bernard Kessedjian, the chef de cabinet of Roland Dumas, the Foreign Minister, were instrumental in oiling the wheels of the machine that allowed the instigator of terrorist attacks into the country. Both men resigned their posts, as did Christian Vigouroux, another chef de cabinet, who had been their contact at the Interior Ministry.

They acted after receiving a telephone call from Mrs Dufoix saying that Habash had requested treatment in France. According to the various versions they believed that, since the initiative came from someone working at the Elysee Palace, it had been approved at the highest level and there was therefore no need to inform their ministers. In these versions, Mrs Dufoix had not made it plain that she was calling as Red Cross head and not as an Elysee adviser. A picture emerged of mandarins deciding on policy while their political bosses were kept in ignorance.

The contaminated blood affair is much more serious. There, according to testimony in the trial over the past six weeks, a lack of liaison between the cabinet of Edmond Herve, the junior health minister in 1985 when the alleged offences were committed, slowed the process which could have ensured that only safe blood products were prescribed to French haemophiliacs. But in this case, the cabinet members in question are not experienced civil servants who graduated from the best French Grandes Ecoles but doctors and scientists recruited for their specialist knowledge.

The prosecution, which called on Friday for a four-year prison sentence for Michel Garretta, the former head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre, and suspended sentences for the other three defendants, alleges that the four doctors knowingly allowed the distribution of products tainted with the HIV virus, so as not to destroy existing expensive stocks, for several months after heated products had been shown to be safe.

Ten days ago Mrs Dufoix, Mr Herve and Laurent Fabius, who was prime minister at the time, were called as witnesses. While Mrs Dufoix and Mr Fabius acquitted themselves well, explaining that they had been unaware of the existence of the new, heated products, Mr Herve's testimony was more damning. Just before the ex-minister's appearance, Claude Weisselberg, a doctor who was the technical adviser in his cabinet, took the stand.

Although the dangers had been known for several months, it was not until June 1985 that Dr Weisselberg told his minister that stocks held by the transfusion centre were tainted. It was not until October that the exclusive use of heated products became obligatory. In testimony, it transpired that Dr Weisselberg had not passed on letters of warning from doctors and public health officials to Mr Herve explaining the perils. 'It's quite easy to be clairvoyant a posteriori,' said Dr Weisselberg. 'I understood no more than the others. Forgive me]'

When Mr Herve testified, Francois Morette, a defence lawyer, asked him: 'What do you have to do to inform a politician who has sought out the responsibility (of a minister) of a problem of national importance?' Mr Herve shouted that the question was inadmissible. Eric Dupond- Moretti, acting for the victims and their families, said: 'As a tax-payer, I should like to know if procedures have been improved at your ministry since you left or are all ministries like that?' The judge disallowed the question.

While the secretary-general of a French ministry, equivalent to a permanent under-secretary, is an experienced civil servant, cabinet members often move with a politician from ministry to ministry, or even from town hall to ministry. Often intimates of the politician concerned, the chefs de cabinet are frequently accused of being exclusive and secretive in their dealings.

'In Britain, the single biggest difference is that we copy everything to everybody,' said one British civil servant familiar with the French system. In court on Friday, Michele Bernard-Requin, the prosecutor, painted a picture of courtiers giving the minister the answers they thought he wanted. 'The plan was to present the most acceptable decision', to manipulate information until it became neutral, 'to round it off, to sweeten it, to lessen it'.