When, late August, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, revealed on French radio that he had seriously considered resigning1 over the French government's stigmatisation of the Roma, the former Socialist was doubtless trying to save the modicum of dignity that some of his friends, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit2, still credited him with. But in the event, it sounded more like the cry of man drowning.
As Cohn-Bendit himself put it: "Imagine Bernard Kouchner 15 years ago! He would have been on the first flight […] He would go and see for himself what life was like for the Roma in Romania and Bulgaria and he would say: "Stop right there, Monsieur le président! You can’t do that!"
Kouchner’s comments about his near-resignation, pleading that although he had defended the Roma for 25 years his resignation would achieve nothing, did him few favours. They served only to illustrate the abyss into which the co-founder of 'Médecins sans frontières' (Doctors without Borders), a pioneer in international humanitarian activities and one of the Socialist Party’s biggest hitters on major international issues in the 1980s and 1990s, had now fallen.
The tragedy of Kouchner's time at the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs (commonly referred to as the Quai d'Orsay, after its River Seine quayside address), amounts to much more than a renunciation of his principles. It’s a tale of idleness, fickleness, arrogance, contempt, impotence and, ultimately, the weakening of the institution that he directs. The consequence has been that French foreign policy is now flying at half-mast and gives no clear message.
Numerous articles and several books have already been written on the subject of the conflicts of interest caused by Kouchner’s professional activities (concerning various business deals), and also his private life (his wife, Christine Ockrent, a veteran journalist, is now head of France's external public broadcasting authority. More ink still has flowed about his various foreign policy failures and on the effects of budget cuts at the foreign affairs ministry.
Behind all this is a man who isn’t doing his job - or who doesn’t know how to do it - and who desperately clings to his position, at the beck and call of his master in the Elysée Palace, even prepared to pre-empt what the president will ask him to do.
In a restaurant close to his offices near the Quai d'Orsay, a senior diplomat, who has daily contact with the minister, agreed to talk to Mediapart on the strict condition of anonymity. This was also the condition demanded by nearly all of those who are quoted in this article.
The interview was on July 27th, 2010, just a few days after the news of the assassination of the French hostage Michel Germaneau in the Sahel, for which the Al-Qaeda organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa) claimed responsibility. "Did you hear Kouchner this morning on RTL[radio]?" asked the diplomat. "It’s pathetic, a total disaster! Everyone knows he doesn’t study his briefs, but he could at least communicate properly. That should be his core business, communication. He was completely floundering there." Indeed, the minister made a succession of sweeping statements, interspersed with "I don’t knows" and appears out of his depth on a subject of major importance.
"Kouchner has always worked on instinct, and for a long time that was his strength and his charm," commented a French ambassador to a Middle East country, and who nevertheless admits to having sympathy for his boss. "We don’t have enough people like that at the ministry. But when that’s accompanied by a disdain for diplomats and their work, it ends up being counter-productive. I can’t even count the number of meetings in which the minister has boasted about not reading the briefs that they have prepared for him, or mocked the advisors who have written his summaries. Inevitably, he ends up spouting rubbish, which could have been avoided if he had done a bit of preparation."
1: On October 6th, shortly after this article was first published on the Mediapart English pages, French weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur revealed the contents of a resignation letter reportedly prepared by Bernard Kouchner on August 25th. In it, the minister expresses his concerns over the French government's recent policy emphasis on law and order, an end to its cross-party political "openness" and the "humiliation" he has suffered due to the significant foreign affairs role given to presidential advisors. On October 7th, a presidential spokesman, quoted by French daily Le Figaro, said Nicolas Sarkozy had never received a resignation letter from the minister.
2: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, once known as 'Danny the Red' as one of the leaders of the 1968 Paris student riots, is now co-president of the European Parliament's Green parties alliance.