WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - A prominent French academic, Richard Descoings, was found dead naked in a New York hotel room on Tuesday afternoon and New York police opened an investigation into the circumstances of his death.
New York City Police said that the body of Descoings, 53, director of the prestigious Institute of Political Studies or "Sciences Po" in Paris and a member of France's Council of State, a government advisory body, was found in his room at the Michelangelo Hotel on 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan.
A police source initially categorized the circumstances of the incident as "suspicious," in part because Descoings' room was a jumble when investigators arrived.
But later on Tuesday, Paul Browne, chief spokesman for the New York Police Department, said investigators now believe the disorder in the room was caused by rescue workers while they tried to resuscitate the Frenchman.
Police believe there is no evidence of a struggle, Browne told Reuters. "We're awaiting the medical examiner's report as well as toxicology reports," he said. A law enforcement source said police were still looking into the possibility that an unknown person had been with Descoings in the room before his death. They are also investigating the possibility that the death was a suicide, the source said. Some of Descoings' belongings had been thrown out a window, the source said, but they were subsequently recovered by investigators, undermining the likelihood that he might have been the victim of a robbery.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had commissioned Descoings for a report on French high schools, offered condolences to his family and friends, and paid homage to what he described as an exceptional career, dedicated to promoting education in France.
"Richard Descoings contributed more than anyone of his generation to furthering the prestige of France's higher education system," Sarkozy said in an emailed statement.
"As head of Sciences Po for close to 16 years he transformed this venerable institution into an establishment of world renown," he said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, meanwhile, said the French Consul General in New York had rushed to the scene and was in contact with the relevant authorities.
Descoings as in New York for a conference of university presidents sponsored by the United Nations, the Institute of Political Studies said.
But he did not show up on Tuesday morning at the conference at Columbia University and his colleagues phoned the hotel, the police source said.
Hotel staff members went to his room, but believed they heard snoring and let the matter drop. When they returned later, they opened the door. Inside, they found Descoings' nude body.
While there was no sign of forced entry into his room, there were indications alcohol had been consumed, and also indications that more than one person may have been in the room with Descoings, the law enforcement source said.
A family staying in the next room on the hotel's seventh floor said they heard voices of several people talking coming from the direction of Descoings' room late on Monday night.
Ray Ciesinski, of Bethesda, Maryland, said he and his family heard at least two people talking in the hallway as they left Descoings' room on Tuesday morning between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.
The law enforcement source said that police still regard his death as unexplained and that the circumstances are regarded as unusual. The body was removed on Tuesday night and taken to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office.
Descoings was a graduate of France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, or ENA, and had served as a technical adviser on education to former budget minister Michel Charasse and to former education minister Jack Lang.
Awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest decoration, in 2005, he is best-known for reforming Sciences Po, one of the country's most distinguished academic institutions, and for improving access for students from underprivileged areas, despite fierce opposition.
More recently, he was commissioned by Sarkozy himself to look into ways of improving the country's high schools, and his report formed the basis for 2010 reforms designed to bring education into the 21st century and promote equal opportunities.
Jean-Claude Casanova, President of the National Foundation of Political Sciences, and Michel Pebereau, President of the Executive Board of Sciences Po, both expressed their profound sadness, calling Descoings' death an "irreparable loss".
"France today lost an eminent representative of the French school of political science, a tireless player in the influence of French universities in the world, a remarkable architect of the renewal of a leading institution in French universities," Foreign Minister Juppe said in a statement.
The investigation into the death of Descoings will be the second major investigation in a year to be launched by New York police involving a major French personality.
Last year, New York police arrested the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after a chambermaid at a Times Square area hotel accused him of sexual assault. The charges against Strauss-Kahn were later dropped.
Strauss-Kahn, who once was a potential candidate for the French presidency, is now under investigation by French authorities for his alleged involvement with a prostitution ring in the northern French city of Lille.
Strauss-Kahn was once a professor at the "Sciences Po" institute which Descoings headed.
Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery in Paris; Editing by Dan Burns and Anthony Boadle