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Profile : Haiti's Mysterious Power Manipulator : Everyone says Lt. Col. Michel Francois holds the key to peace. But no one knows much about him.

October 05, 1993|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — Michel Francois is the most important man in Haiti. Everyone agrees on that. In the words of a leading businessman, Francois "is the center, the hub. He is in full control."

The descriptions abound. He "is the major obstacle" to ending Haiti's current bloody nightmare, "the capstone of all corruption," a "killer."

Whatever he is called, Lt. Col. Michel Francois is, as a senior international official said, "totally capable" of derailing a U.N.-brokered agreement to restore the Haitian democracy wrecked two years ago with the violent overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Francois holds this position because of his supposed leadership of an ongoing wave of murderous repression and his refusal to accept the terms of the July 3 accord--which U.N. and U.S. officials and Aristide supporters say calls for him to resign his job as Port-au-Prince police chief and leave the country before Aristide returns Oct. 30.

If Francois does not give way and Aristide's return is delayed, "not only will it be a (political) disaster, it will be like pushing the button for a social explosion," said Rev. Antoine Adrien, a major Aristide supporter.

But for a man who seems to literally control the fate of 6.5 million Haitians--not to mention the prestige of the United Nations and the United States--Michel Francois is barely more than a name whispered in off-the-record conversations. To call him shadowy is to call the sun bright.

He avoids public appearances, does not like his picture taken or his words recorded. Almost nothing is known of his private life, his background or his personal likes and dislikes. A request to newspapers and news agencies turned up reports of only one picture, showing him in profile with army Commander in Chief Gen. Raoul Cedras--and that proved elusive.

Even his name is in question, some calling him Michel Francois, others Michel-Joseph Francois. On the streets, but only after making sure no one else is lurking about, ordinary Haitians refer to him sardonically as "sweet Mickey."

"I wouldn't know Michel Francois if he walked into this room," a Haitian political expert said.

"I've never met him," said the business leader who called him Haiti's "hub."

Here is what is on the record--sort of.

Michel Francois is a 36-year-old army colonel who heads the Port-au-Prince police. Except he denies that, saying he is military commander of the capital district. But then he wears a police uniform, carries a policeman's helmet and has his office in police headquarters.

His father was a onetime army sergeant who was promoted to major by then-dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Michel Francois attended the Haitian military academy, where he was a student of Raoul Cedras, now army commander in chief and either Francois' partner in power or his frontman, depending on which version you believe.

In any case, he graduated in 1981 and allied himself with a faction of officers known for their corruption and brutality. He is married, black, of average height and build and speaks English. It is not known if he has children.

He attended a U.S. military training program in Georgia, and his brother, Evans Francois, was once a professional diplomat.

Also on the record is Francois' own stated arrogance.

"The houses (of Parliament) do not have the right to summon me because Parliament did not ratify me," he said in a rare interview with the daily newspaper Le Nouvelliste when asked about his refusal to deal with an investigation into a recent murder attributed to his police.

Beyond the record, there is the Michel Francois of background sessions, off-the-record disclosures, hearsay, rumor and psychobabble. These are the fertile grounds from which grow the assertions of importance and power.

In the realm of the likely--meaning most diplomats and informed Haitians believe it to be true--is the report that Francois, while not the instigator, was the key to the success of the Sept. 30, 1991, anti-Aristide coup.

In the interview with Le Nouvelliste, Francois rather coyly accepted that role when he said, "I took effective command of the situation" when other officers were wavering.

True or not, the report is enough to create admiration and support among the military's rank and file, and fear among officers and the traditional civilian elite.

His color and his background contribute to those reactions. Most of his troops are also black, while the officer corps is made up mostly of light-skinned, mixed-race people. And Francois comes from a lower-class family in a country long controlled by a rich elite.

"This accounts for his popularity (among the rank and file) in a military where officers are usually hated," one foreign expert said.

In the same category of what is probably true--and with the same effect--are reports that Francois' police force is little more than a death squad responsible for the flood of human rights violations and political murders that have locked the country in fear.

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