Why the spooks have it in for the colonel

A senior Kosovo peacekeeper is roughed up and jailed as French intelligence pursues its own agenda

By John Lichfield

2 April 2000

How about this as a thriller script? A brilliant, bespectacled, middle-aged gendarmerie colonel is sent to the Balkans as part of an international peace-keeping force. The colonel, an expert in legal affairs and veteran of peace-keeping in Lebanon, quarrels with senior French army officers, who seem be pursuing their own political agenda.

On the other hand, he comes to admire a controversial, socialist, former French minister – and ex-1968 student activist – who has been appointed to lead the UN civilian administration of a racially divided and explosive province. Part of the agenda of the French military top brass seems to be to undermine the ex-minister, whom they regard as an incompetent, publicity-seeking, bleeding-heart liberal. The colonel also begins a friendship with a young Frenchwoman of Albanian extraction, hired as an interpreter by the French forces.

The socialist ex-minister wants to bring the much decorated colonel on to his own staff. The French military hierarchy decides to get rid of him.

First, they leak information on his friendship with the interpreter to his wife. Then he is abruptly recalled to Paris and accused of leaking documents to the press. The colonel is followed in the street by eight military security agents. One or two agents would have been surveillance; eight is a physical threat. He challenges them. A scuffle breaks out. The meek-looking colonel is kneed in the genitals. Two of the military security agents are, embarrassingly, arrested as street thugs by ordinary Parisian cops and locked up before proving their identity.

The colonel is brought before an investigating magistrate (a specialist in terrorism, no less, although there is no terrorist connection in the case). He is placed under formal investigation for leaking low-level defence secrets and jailed indefinitely in a prison in eastern Paris. His lawyer, a veteran of civil rights cases, appeals successfully and the colonel is freed, pending further inquiries and a possible trial. He is ordered not to contact the press or his interpreter friend.

The rest of the plot is unclear. It has not happened yet.

The above account sums up the Kafkaesque recent experiences of Colonel Jean-Michel Méchain, 47, holder of the Légion d'honneur, the national order of merit and the French military cross.

Until last month, he was a senior officer in the French contingent of K-For, the peace-keeping forces in Kosovo. Last week, still recovering from being kneed in the groin, he spent a night in Santé prison, accused of being a traitor.

But a traitor to whom? Colonel Méchain's lawyer, William Bourdon (who also acted for David Shayler, the renegade MI5 officer), says his client is a victim of what he calls a "puppet-show secret": the enmity between the French army and Bérnard Kouchner, the UN special representative in Kosovo.

Mr Kouchner, former French health minister, a leader of the 1968 student unrest, and co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières, is disliked by the generals leading the French contingent in K-For. They accuse him of being anti-Serb; interfering in their security role; and doing too little of what he is supposed to do: restore social and economic life in the province.

We know of these tensions because of two articles which appeared in the French press in February, quoting documents sent back to military headquarters in Paris by French generals. It is these documents which Colonel Méchain is accused of leaking: something that he adamantly denies.

The simple explanation for this quarrel – too simple – is that the French army regards Mr Kouchner as being anti-Serb because the French army tends to be pro-Serb. There has been evidence in the past of pro-Serb tendencies in the French army, including the arrest of an officer at Nato headquarters for leaking secrets to Belgrade.

This may have played some part in the bizarre story of Colonel Méchain, but the fuller explanation seems to be more complex and more banal. The bespectacled colonel seems to be a victim – whether fully innocent or not remains to be seen – of tensions and jealousies between different arms of the French military.

The gendarmerie, although deployed as a civilian police force in rural France, is a military force, run by the Ministry of Defence. Its presence in Kosovo, as well as part of the civilian French riot police, the CRS, is resented by the front-line French army. Why? Wars these days seem to be fought mainly by aircraft. If soldiers are also forced to give up part of their role in "peace-keeping", politicians may start to ask why they need so many soldiers.

Mr Kouchner has, again and again, called for greater western "police" manpower in Kosovo, something he regards as more suitable than a pure military presence. The French government (to which he used to belong) has rebuffed Mr Kouchner, instead ordering gendarmerie officers to train and equip soldiers in policing and peace-keeping methods.

Colonel Méchain, whether he leaked the documents or not, became identified in army eyes with the Kouchner anti-army viewpoint. He directly challenged French army officers on several occasions when they ignored the rules laid down by UN resolutions and ordered mass round-ups of Kosovo Albanian "suspects".

In February Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical and investigative French newspaper, carried an article quoting a French "commander" (evidently, from the context, a gendarme) who criticised the clumsiness of French army tactics in Kosovo. They would throw a "match into the powderkeg" if nothing was done, he said. Was that Colonel Méchain? The army clearly thinks that it was.

Original article