Once again, France awoke this morning to news of a mysterious incident involving one of its more prominent citizens in a New York City hotel. Richard Descoings, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, better known as Sciences Po, was found dead in his room at the Michelangelo in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon. He was in bed naked, and there were reports that alcohol and drugs were present. Descoings’s iPhone and laptop were discovered on a landing below. The New York City police said they are treating the incident as suspicious.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told reporters “we are waiting for the medical examiner’s report,” but was careful to add that as yet no evidence had been found of “criminality.” According to law enforcement sources, suicide has not been ruled out.
Inevitably, the incident raised echoes of the arrest last year of Dominique Strauss-Kahn after he was accused of sexually assaulting a maid at another Manhattan hotel. Those charges later were dropped, but Strauss-Kahn—who was the head of the International Monetary Fund at the time, and touted as the likely next president of France—has since seen his political career buried under a mountain of scandalous allegations. There is no real connection with the death of Descoings, certainly, apart from the impression in Paris that Gotham is a risky playground for the French elite.
In the case of Descoings, 53, the implication of early reports suggesting one or two men had been in his room earlier threatened to give a tabloid gloss to what would otherwise be mostly reverential obituaries for the distinguished academic and civil servant. Scandal “will not be the headline,” said a source close to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who attended Sciences Po in the 1980s and often consulted with Descoings about efforts to evolutionize, if not revolutionize, higher learning in France.
Descoings was in New York City to attend an education conference at Columbia University. When he failed to show up Tuesday morning, his colleagues called the hotel to see what had become of him.
Police are investigating whether one man followed by a second man visited Descoings in the middle of the previous night, and left after an hour or so, and if such a visit might be tied to his death.
But a hotel housekeeper said she heard Descoings snoring in his room at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, according to a well-informed law enforcement source. After the call from Columbia, hotel security checked on him and found him sleeping but alive. He woke up briefly with a grunt, then went back to sleep. But when Descoings failed to check out at 12:30 p.m., according to this source, security checked on him again 30 minutes later and found him apparently dead, naked, on the bed. Emergency medical teams were called and tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate Descoings, pulling him off the bed to work on him on the floor.
Some friends of Descoings told detectives that he had been depressed. It is because there were no visible signs of trauma that suicide is being considered as a possible explanation pending further forensic tests.
In Paris overnight, a statement by President Sarkozy paid homage to “the exceptional career of a great servant of the State, who devoted his entire life” to the cause of education: “In almost 16 years as the head of ‘Sciences Po,’ he made of that venerable institution, which he reformed profoundly, an establishment with a global reputation.”
In fact, Descoings was one of his country’s most controversial educators. The grandes écoles, the most influential schools, are meant to train a meritocratic elite, and have rigid admission standards. (The most exclusive of all, the École Nationale d’Administration, admits only about 100 students a year, many of whom go on to hold top government jobs.) But Descoings, whose university admitted more than 1,000 students a year, initiated a policy early in the last decade that embraced a handful of applicants each year from underprivileged backgrounds—in effect, a French version of affirmative action.
“Ten years later, the face of his school has changed,” Le Monde noted in its online obituary for Descoings this morning. The number of scholarship students has risen from 6 percent to 26 percent: “His model has given ideas, aroused endless debates, but the grandes écoles, too attached to their entrance exams, prefer to help high school students prepare rather than exempt them.”