Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sarkozy's Cabinet - The Odd Couple and other surprises

Nicolas Sarkozy's appointment of Bernard Kouchner as France's Foreign Minister has generated various instant profiles of Kouchner. I thought the piece by Elaine Sciolino in today's New York Times (see below) was one of the more interesting and substantial.

One thing that Sciolino brings out more sharply than most of the other Kouchner profiles I have read is the extent to which Sarkozy and Kouchner are really an Odd Couple. Not only did Kouchner criticize Sarkozy rather severely during the election campaign--charging, for instance, that Sarkozy had flirted inexcusably with xenophobic appeals in his effort to win over Le Pen voters--but the two appear to disagree sharply on some major foreign policy issues. These include one of the most crucial and contentious foreign policy questions facing not just France but Europe as a whole, whether or not to accept Turkey as a member of the EU. Kouchner, unsurprisingly, is a strong supporter of Turkey's admission, whereas Sarkozy flatly opposes the idea (along with many other significant figures across the French political spectrum, and probably most of the French electorate as well).

Neither of these guys is likely to defer comfortably to the other, so I suspect that this partnership may turn out to be a bumpy ride, perhaps ending in a messy divorce with angry recriminations. It's unlikely to be dull.

=> Sarkozy's new (slimmed-down) Cabinet is full of surprises and unorthodox gestures. In addition to Kouchner, Sarkozy's most striking appointment was probably his choice of Rachida Dati, a woman whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria and Morocco, to be Minister of Justice. As the Daily Telegraph noted, this is a first:
The new justice minister, Rachida Dati, 41, became the first politician of North African origin to hold a top French government post.

Mr Sarkozy's election campaign spokeswoman - a trained magistrate - was born to illiterate Algerian and Moroccan parents and grew up on a poor housing project.

She has in the past tried to improve Mr Sarkozy's execrable image in France's volatile, high-immigrant suburbs.
Good luck ...

=> It may not be coincidental that Sarkozy happens to be one of the few major French political figures who openly supports the idea of affirmative action, a policy that most French political opinion tends to reject as an "American" notion at odds with France's more universalistic republican traditions.

At all events, Sarkozy's other big surprise was to give roughly half of all Cabinet positions to women--7 out of 15. France has certainly had women as Ministers before (Mitterand even, briefly, had a female Prime Minister). But women have never before had anything close to such a substantial presence in any French Cabinet. And the posts given to women in this Cabinet include important ministries, not just peripheral ones, so this is not a matter of tokenism.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu nicely summed it up:
Women hold key posts in this Government with the former Defence Minister, Michele Alliot Marie, given the Interior, campaign spokeswoman Rachida Dati of North African descent holding Justice. Culture — France has the largest culture budget in the world — has been given to Christine Albanel. The Ministries of Agriculture [JW: in France, this is a Big Deal], Social Cohesion, Higher Education, Health, Youth and Sports have also gone to women.
=>Sarkozy clearly wanted to make a major splash with these Cabinet appointments, and he did. But governing involves more than gestures, however striking and significant those might be. The real drama is still coming up.

--Jeff Weintraub
New York Times
May 18, 2007
Sarkozy’s Top Diplomat: Undiplomatic Opposite

(Paris) BERNARD KOUCHNER, France’s new top diplomat, would never describe himself as diplomatic.

Named as foreign minister, Mr. Kouchner is in many ways the political opposite of his new boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Both are pro-American, but Mr. Sarkozy is conservative while Mr. Kouchner is a man of the left. Mr. Sarkozy opposed the American invasion of Iraq, while Mr. Kouchner, unlike most of the political elite on both the right and the left here, believed that military intervention was justified to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Mr. Sarkozy opposes Turkey’s entry into the European Union; Mr. Kouchner supports it.

“It’s an amazing appointment, a stunning event in French foreign policy,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former American ambassador to the United Nations and one of Mr. Kouchner’s closest friends. “He’s motivated by an antitotalitarian drive, whether he sees injustice from the left or the right. It will be very positive for U.S.-French relations because he does not come with a visceral anger towards the American ‘hyperpower.’”

Mr. Kouchner, a 67-year-old gastroenterologist, earned his reputation as the star of humanitarian relief by challenging authority, destroying convention, insulting opponents and making up rules along the way.

“To change the law, you sometimes have to break the law,” he likes to say.

“An unguided missile,” is how Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former United Nations secretary general, once described him.

But Mr. Kouchner, who has served as France’s health minister and the United Nations’ administrator for Kosovo, has also been the country’s most popular politician on the left over the years.

Elegant, dapper, with movie-star looks despite his age, Mr. Kouchner is half of one of France’s leading power couples.

His longtime partner, Christine Ockrent, is probably France’s best-known female television journalist. They entertain regularly from their grand duplex apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Garden; they always get the best restaurant tables. They have been tarred by their critics with the label “gauche caviar,” Champagne-and-caviar socialism at its worst.

Mr. Kouchner intimately addresses women — and men — as “my dear.” His passion and confidence in speaking English help compensate for his charming but sometimes excruciating mistakes.

By naming him and three other leftists to his conservative government, Mr. Sarkozy fulfilled his promise that his tenure would be one of “openness,” while stripping the Socialist Party of one of its icons just weeks before French voters choose an entirely new Parliament. (Accepting the job of foreign minister got him drummed out of the Socialist Party on Friday.)

Mr. Sarkozy is also signaling that he is serious about putting both human rights and outreach to the United States at the core of his foreign policy. Mr. Kouchner is as close as a Frenchman comes to being pro-American.

EVEN Mr. Kouchner, a co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning relief organization Doctors Without Borders, appreciates the novelty of his appointment.

“This is a bit unusual,” he confessed Friday in his first remarks at the Foreign Ministry. He added that he “would not have done it” had he not felt the conviction “to serve our country.”

Contrary to long-held Gaullist French policy, which evaluates crises through the lens of France’s national interests, Mr. Kouchner sees things through a humanitarian perspective. He was an effective early advocate of “humanitarian intervention” — the right to interfere in another country’s affairs if human rights are being abused.

Mr. Kouchner defended military intervention against Mr. Hussein on humanitarian grounds, not because Iraq might be seeking unconventional weapons. “It was a question of overthrowing an evil dictator, and it was right to intervene,” Mr. Kouchner said in 2004.

He has said that Turkey is part of Europe and deserves to join the European Union; Mr. Sarkozy has said that Turkey is part of Asia, not Europe, and should never become a member.

Mr. Kouchner appears to support the maintenance of a strong international — and French — presence in Afghanistan to bring stability to the country; Mr. Sarkozy has promised that French troops will not stay there forever.

“On Turkey, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the third world and Africa, we’re not close,” Mr. Kouchner acknowledged in a telephone interview. “I’m against his idea of selective immigration. On other issues — the Middle East, on the need for an alliance with America, on the role of France in Europe — we’re very close.”

But it is no secret that Mr. Kouchner has been restless to get back onto the global stage in a starring role, particularly after he was passed over for the job of director of the World Health Organization and as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

He said he turned down the chance to head a new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity when Mr. Sarkozy floated the idea earlier this year. “I refused completely because I am against this idea,” Mr. Kouchner said in the interview.

CHARMING, outspoken, impulsive and at times egotistical, Mr. Kouchner even once thought of running for president himself. Asked in an interview in 2004 whether anyone could beat Mr. Sarkozy, he replied in English, “Me, I believe.” He added, “I am not so arrogant to say I’m serious, but I’m more popular than he is!”

But like his new boss, Mr. Kouchner is hard-charging, impatient, abrasive, media-shrewd and immune to verbal attack. “I have no recipe except one in politics: to continue, to continue, to be obstinate, to be obstinate, to never abandon an issue as long as there remains a small shred of hope,” he said.

During the political campaign, the Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, largely ignored Mr. Kouchner, but Mr. Sarkozy did not. The two men talked regularly, even though Mr. Kouchner openly criticized the candidate.

At one point, he called Mr. Sarkozy a “man who feels no shame,” for his courting of the extreme right. When Mr. Sarkozy said that pedophilia was most likely a genetic flaw, Mr. Kouchner said the statement was “extraordinarily dangerous, entirely irresponsible.”

Mr. Kouchner has always dismissed criticism that his publicity-grabbing techniques can be both unseemly and laughable.

In the early 1990s, for example, when he was filmed wading ashore in Somalia carrying sacks of rice provided by French schoolchildren for the starving, he justified the stunt, saying, “I prefer cameras to bazookas.”

BOTH Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Kouchner in a sense are outsiders. Mr. Sarkozy, who is 15 years his junior, is the son of a Hungarian immigrant; one of his grandparents was Jewish.

Mr. Kouchner’s paternal grandparents were Russian-born Jews who escaped the pogroms by emigrating to France, but perished decades later in Auschwitz. He has said that their deaths contributed to his passion for intervention in humanitarian crises and the promotion of human rights.

“I can’t stand the fact that a man is assassinated, that a woman is abused, that a child is beaten up,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, “What I Believe.”

“Why am I getting indignant? My grandparents died in Auschwitz, and for years no one dared or wanted to tell me. I found out.” He continued: “In a mixed family that is not religious it is even worse: you are either twice as Jewish, or half Jewish. As a result, you react like a tormented soul in the face of oppression.”

Longtime friends of Mr. Kouchner are delighted for him, but worried that his blunt-speaking, off-the-cuff style may clash with that of his new boss. “Sarkozy’s views are totally different from those of Bernard,” said Max Recamier, one of the doctors with whom Mr. Kouchner founded Doctors Without Borders. “He hesitated a lot before accepting. But what drives him is not a hunger for power but a passion for promoting justice and easing suffering in the world. And let’s face it, he’s 67 now. He’s mellowed — like a good wine.”