Duvalier went from riches to rags

The former Haitian dictator frittered away his fortune during 25 years of French exile, writes Jeremy Tordjman.

 Jeremy Tordjman, Agence France-Presse J

Fleeing to France in 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier was only meant to stay a week. Instead, a 25-year exile dragged Haiti's notorious ex-dictator from riches to rags until his surprise return home.

Duvalier's appearance this month in Haiti -- where he faces charges for alleged crimes against humanity during his 1971-1986 rule -- raised the question of what the man known as "Baby Doc" got up to in the meantime.

Acquaintances, creditors and other witnesses have shed light on the murky years since the notorious ex-leader's official welcome expired and he became a furtive resident in France, Haiti's former colonial ruler.

Leaving a trail of unpaid bills, Duvalier, now 59, hopped from one hotel or apartment to another as he burned through his fortune and evaded repeated attempts to put him on trial. After Duvalier was driven from Haiti by popular protests in February 1986, the French government granted him a week's stay in France "to ease the democratic transition" in Haiti.

He remained in France, however, applying for asylum which was refused in 1987, and then lived as an illegal resident for several years.

He spent the first few living it up in expensive restaurants with his wife Michele Bennett, in the four-star Abbaye de Talloires hotel on the shores of an Alpine lake, and in Mediterranean villas on the Cote d'Azur.

His past came back to haunt him when an association of Haitians in France launched legal proceedings in the late 1990s for alleged crimes against humanity. But the case did not make it to court.

When the Haitian state tried to sue him for $120 million, an appeals court ruled that it did not come under French courts' jurisdiction.

He was also pursued by the landlord of one of the many places he laid his head, the Eden Bleu Hotel north of Cannes, where he left an unpaid bill worth several thousand euros in 1995.

"We handed the information to a member of the intelligence services, with whom I ended up getting annoyed ... because it didn't lead anywhere," said the landlord, Patrick Budail, alleging that Duvalier was "protected".

For the last few years of his exile, "Baby Doc" was off the radar. He was officially declared a missing person, raising suspicions that successive French governments were protecting him.

"Neither the right nor the left wanted Duvalier to stand in a trial which would have brought to light that deals were made with a dictator," said Gerald Bloncourt, a rights activist in Paris campaigning for Duvalier to face trial. The exile's wealth was not shielded, however. After he and Bennett divorced in 1993, "his fortune disappeared because his wife had power of attorney over the accounts," said Max Bourjolly, a former communist leader in Haiti.

A journalist who met Duvalier several times, Nicolas Jallot, added: "His friends and relations, his former ministers, the Bennett family -- all of them fleeced him."

In 1992 Duvalier was forced to sell his Themericourt chateau northwest of Paris to the local council for the equivalent of about $1.2 million.

Duvalier was reduced to living with his student son in Paris, before moving in with his own mother who died in 1997. Ronald Mettelus, a former opposition leader now close to Duvalier, says the ex-dictator lived for a decade in a "modest" two-bedroom flat with his female companion, Veronique Roy, before his dramatic return this month.