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France: Media Call For Frankness In Medical Reports About Politicians

Prague, 8 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An unexplained serious accident during routine minor surgery to France's interior minister last week (Sept. 2) has sparked complaints from both the press and the country's medical community that the Government has been far from open about the state of health of one of its most important members. In a country disinclined to reveal personal information about its leaders, the episode and its aftermath have set off a new debate over how much disclosure about such matters is necessary in a properly functioning democracy.

The controversy escalated yesterday with calls for greater governmental frankness from two Left-of-Center national dailies that generally support the Socialist-led Government, "Le Monde" and "Liberation." The papers appealed for what they called "total transparency" and "complete candor" both about the minister's current condition and the accident that caused it.

The minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, remained in a coma yesterday at the Val de Grace military hospital in Paris, where senior French government leaders --including the President-- are usually treated. Six days ago he entered the hospital, after telling his staff that he expected to be fit for work within 72 hours and back in the office within a week.

But the operation to remove some gall stones turned out to be a spectacular failure when Chevenement had a strong allergic reaction to a component of the anesthesia administered to him. On the operating table, the 59-year-old minister's heart failed and remained inactive for an hour, until cardiac massages and electroshocks restored a normal beat. Chevenement has been unconscious and under a life-support system ever since, and there are fears not only of neurological damage but also of the effects of shock-related kidney and liver problems.

In the six days since the failed operation, the military hospital has issued only four terse medical bulletins, the first one a full 36 hours after the accident. During much of that time, several government officials claimed that Chevenement had successfully undergone routine surgery and would resume work in a matter of days.

But the first bulletin admitted that he had suffered "cardiac arrest" probably due to the muscle-relaxing curare contained in the anesthetic, although his condition was said to be "slowly improving." That was enough to spark an initial burst of anger from "Liberation." Citing the names of several officials who had told reporters the minister was doing well, the paper wrote (Sept. 4) angrily that "the Government lied about the patient's condition."

A subsequent brief bulletin made public the "reactive coma" in which Chevenement still languishes. The third communique noted that he was "stable (but) in a critical state (and that) no definitive prognosis (could) yet be made." A fourth one, issued late yesterday, said that the minister's "state of health had improved in the past 48 hours"

That touch of slight optimism might have come in reaction to a radio interview the day before by one of Chevenement's cabinet colleagues, Education Minister Claude Allegre. Allegre said Sunday night that Chevenement's "state of health is still stationary and alarming (for) the entire Government." His candor evoked denials from several government spokesmen.

The hospital's own spokesman have said that the sparse information in their bulletins was in deference to Chevenement's wife, who did not want to make the medical details public. But in its editorial today, "Le Monde" accused hospital authorities of "taking refuge behind the (Chevenement) family." The paper said that "to remain vague, to shelter behind secrecy --be it medical, military or state-- is the surest way of letting rumor take over..."

In fact, rumors are rife not in only Paris but throughout the French press and medical communities. One Strasbourg doctor told our correspondent that he and his colleagues doubted the operation had to do with gall stones, which these days are generally removed by laser beam without invasive surgery. A journalist at a major French weekly said there were reports that Chevenement had been the victim of a terrorist attack. Neither notion is likely to prove accurate. This is hardly the first time France has had problems in releasing full medical details on its ailing leaders or officials. The late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand's prostate cancer was revealed to the public 11 years after it was diagnosed, and then only because he had to undergo surgery. One of Mitterrand's predecessors, conservative Georges Pompidou, was known to be suffering from far more than the frequent "colds' his spokesmen advertised. But not even after the "Washington Post" had published details of Pompidou's malignancy was the illness revealed in France --until the President's death in office.

Other Western democracies have had similar problems --if not quite as often as France. During his successful campaign for U.S. president in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy was asked whether it was true he suffered from Addison's disease, a degenerative and frequently fatal ailment. Kennedy said he did not, which we now know was an outright lie.

How much, then, can a democracy reveal about its own leaders? There is no simple answer to the question --except, perhaps, that it's safer and surer for a government to tell as much of the truth as possible and as early as possible. France's Left Government is now learning that lesson tardily and painfully.