PARIS — Claude Malhuret, derided by critics as the Mr. Clean of the French government, is a slight, soft-spoken physician with an ear-to-ear mustache that has made him one of the country's most familiar faces.
He is also something of an experiment in government.
Since the conservatives came to power a year and a half ago, Malhuret has been Premier Jacques Chirac's secretary of state for human rights.
As such, the balding, 37-year-old Malhuret is Paris' official watchdog, frequently a rare voice of humanitarian reason in the political and bureaucratic quagmire of a modern Western government.
Nearly Unique Job
The job is nearly unique. Argentina and Canada have similar Cabinet-level posts. Others, where they exist, are lower positions, such as Washington's assistant secretary of state for human rights.
It is an admirable commitment, most would agree, creating a top-level human rights overseer in a country with a long tradition of offering asylum to the world's displaced or politically prosecuted. Several European countries are watching the experiment with interest. But at home, opinion is mixed.
Yves Jouffa, president of France's League of Human Rights, which was created in 1888, has said that if a secretary of state for human rights were to do the job well, he would have to resign once a week.
"I think there is an incompatibility between a government and the defense of human rights," Jouffa said. "The defense of human rights must be by the people, a sort of counter-power."
'He Serves Nothing'
Added Jean-Pierre Chevenement, an opposition Socialist candidate for president in next year's elections: "Malhuret is the Mr. Clean of government they can bring out whenever they need him. He serves nothing. He is a political tool."
Malhuret, not surprisingly, thinks that is hogwash, particularly since he has occasionally been an uncomfortable thorn in the side of his own government with frank, outspoken statements.
"I am here to do a certain number of things and to say a certain number of things," he said "You can always say Mr. Clean, but it is a commitment on the part of this government.
"And it is an even larger commitment, because I say what I think and I don't have any electoral afterthoughts."
Product of Uprisings
If the job is unusual, so is the man.
Malhuret is a product of the 1968 student-worker uprisings in France that nearly toppled Charles de Gaulle and marked a generation of Frenchmen. A medical student at the time, he became a leader of a leftist student union, later joining the Unified Socialist Party, then on the extreme non-communist left.
After his internship, he immediately launched into a career of humanitarian work in the Third World, serving in a government-run aid program in Morocco in lieu of military service. That was followed by a World Health Organization's smallpox eradication mission in India.
A turning point in his thinking came when he joined Doctors Without Borders, a French-based humanitarian organization that operates medical missions throughout the Third World.
Trip to Cambodia
"I went to the Cambodian border to help Cambodian refugees," he said. "At first, I didn't want to go. I was still on the left and I said to myself I didn't want to help the bourgeois of Phnom Penh who had fled. I arrived and I discovered that the bourgeois had all been killed and that these were poor peasants.
"I didn't believe it at the time. It was 1976. They explained to me what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime. It was unbelievable. But there was no way not to believe. I returned to France and I explained, and I was spit upon. People told me that it was not true, that I was playing the game of the right. It was not until 1978 and the Vietnamese invasion that everybody accepted what I was saying."
After Cambodia came Afghanistan, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Poland.
"I saw that all I had defended when I was 18 years old, the demonstrations in support of Vietnam and Cambodia and all of that, had prepared dictatorships even worse than those I fought," he said. "As a whole generation in France, I passed from an attitude of extreme left to an attitude of re-centered left. That was at the end of the 1970s."
In 1980, he was named director of Doctors Without Borders.
His rightward slide went another step when Francois Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 and the Socialists decided to offer ministerial posts to Communists, people Malhuret had "discovered over 10 years were unacceptable, the totalitarians of our era."
He became friends with a number of young, bright center-right politicians, such as Francois Leotard, now minister of culture, and Alain Madelin, current minister of industry. When the right took control of the National Assembly in March, 1986, Malhuret was asked to become secretary of state for human rights.