NY police probe suspicious death of French academic

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – A prominent French academic, Richard Descoings, was found dead naked in a New York hotel room yesterday afternoon and New York police have opened an investigation into what they believe are the suspicious circumstances of his death.

Richard Descoings

A law enforcement source said that the body of Descoings, director of the prestigious Institute of Political Studies or “Sciences Po” in Paris and a member of France’s Council of State, a government advisory body, was found in his room at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had commissioned Descoings for a report on French high schools, offered condolences to his family and friends, and paid homage to what he described as an exceptional career, dedicated to promoting education in France.

“Richard Descoings contributed more than anyone of his generation to furthering the prestige of France’s higher education system,” Sarkozy said in an emailed statement.

“As head of Sciences Po for close to 16 years he transformed this venerable institution into an establishment of world reknown,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, meanwhile, said the French Consul General in New York had rushed to the scene and was in contact with the relevant authorities.


The law enforcement source said Descoings was in New York to attend a conference at Columbia University, but did not show up on Tuesday morning when the conference was due to begin.

Colleagues subsequently phoned the hotel. When staff members first went to his room, they believed they heard snoring and let the matter drop.

When Descoings still did not appear at the conference, hotel staff again visited his room and this time opened the door. Inside, they found Descoings’ nude body and the room in disarray.

The law enforcement source said that police were treating the circumstances of Descoings’ death as suspicious. While there was no indication of forced entry into his room, there were indications that alcohol had been consumed, and also indications that more than one person may have been in the room with Descoings.

Descoings, 53, was a graduate of France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, and had served as a technical adviser on education to former budget minister Michel Charasse and to former education minister Jack Lang.

Awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration, in 2005, he is best-known for reforming Sciences Po, one of the country’s most distinguished academic institutions, and for improving access for students from underprivileged areas, despite fierce opposition.

More recently, he was commissioned by Sarkozy himself to look into ways of improving the country’s high schools, and his report formed the basis for 2010 reforms designed to bring education into the 21st century and promote equal opportunities.

Jean-Claude Casanova, President of the National Foundation of Political Sci-ences, and Michel Pebereau, President of the Executive Board of Sciences Po, both expressed their profound sadness, calling Descoings’ death an “irreparable loss”.

The investigation into the death of Descoings will be the second major investigation in a year to be launched by New York police involving a major French personality.

Last year, New York police arrested the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after a chambermaid at a Times Square area hotel accused him of sexual assault. The charges against Strauss-Kahn were later dropped.

Strauss-Kahn, who once was a potential candidate for the French presidency, is now under investigation by French authorities for his alleged involvement with a prostitution ring in the northern French city of Lille.

Strauss-Kahn was once a professor at the “Sciences Po” institute which Descoings headed.

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