France's Kouchner: humanitarian turns cabinet refugee
A global humanitarian who won his spurs helping refugees, Bernard Kouchner died a bitter political death Sunday when President Nicolas Sarkozy prepared to replace him as foreign minister.
Typically, Kouchner was on the road -- visiting key officials in war-torn Afghanistan -- when Prime Minister Francois Fillon dissolved the government to allow a reshuffle, but Sarkozy is not expected to retain him.
Despite wide overseas experience suiting him to the foreign relations job, and high approval ratings, Kouchner, 71, a trained doctor and ex-communist, struggled to fit in as a left-winger in Sarkozy's conservative cabinet.
"On the right they envy me and on the left they detest me," he said, a year after being drafted into power when Sarkozy came to power in 2007.
"But despite that, the French people don't seem unhappy with me."
As founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders, Kouchner championed humanitarian intervention by which states justified stepping into dictatorships and war zones to protect civilians.
But his long record of responding to crises in places including Vietnam, Darfur, Kosovo and Haiti, and previous cabinet posts in several Socialist governments, could not protect him from political pressures at home.
He baulked at the task of defending some of Sarkozy's actions, notably the mass deportation of Roma minorities this year, an illiberal policy which drove him to admit publicly that he had come close to resigning.
"Sometimes in this job you have to bite your tongue," he admitted in 2007 after defending Sarkozy's decision to repair ties with Libya.
"There are lots of other countries in the world with whom we have weird relations that are necessary for our country," he said.
Cuddly and prickly by turns, with heavily-accented English and a disarming chuckle -- as well as dark rages -- Kouchner operated largely through personal contacts and tended to clash with career diplomats, observers say.
"He was always reactive and emotional," said Dominique Moisi of the French International Relations Institute, arguing that Sarkozy had recruited Kouchner to upset his erstwhile friends on the left rather than for his experience.
"Kouchner was not chosen for his superior understanding of the world but because the presidency wanted an exercise in politicking. The president's allies thought he would pose no problems since he wasn't a man with an agenda."
With figures in Sarkozy's office calling the shots and even stepping in to lead some key diplomatic trips, there was grumbling in the ranks of Kouchner's diplomats that he did not do enough to defend their patch.
Worse, in handling key strategic relations with China, Russia, India and the United States "he did not have the necessary capacity for reflection and imagination," Moisi argued.
Europe, meanwhile, "was not his cup of tea", said another expert, Pascal Boniface of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
Instead, Kouchner enjoyed working on regions he knew well from his humanitarian career: Africa, the Balkans, where he served as Kosovo's UN civil administrator from 1999 to 2001, and the Middle East, particularly Lebanon.
He developed cells of soft power in his ministry, setting up a crisis centre and a department dedicated to globalisation, boosting France's cultural missions abroad and lobbying for banking taxes to fund development.
But in the end the man dubbed "the French Doctor" was laid low by politics.
"The foreign ministry job should have been the crowning honour for Bernard Kouchner, but it was rather the end of Kouchnerism," said Boniface.
"What he represented -- the right of humanitarian intervention, human rights -- was broken on the anvil of realpolitik."
© 2010 AFP