WHEN Bernard Kouchner was appointed Foreign Secretary in 2007, the public association between him and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was still so strong that the international aid group felt it necessary to issue a strongly worded press release reminding everyone that the former doctor had not had any links with MSF since 1979.
The fact that many still connect him and the Nobel Prize-winning aid group is the result of a mixture of his continuous presence on the world stage on behalf of humanitarian causes and careful image management. His partner since 1981, journalist Christine Ockrent is a director of France 24.
He has been called the father of modern humanitarian intervention on the one hand and “an unguided missile,” by former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali on the other.
Kouchner is an attention-seeker. The question that has followed his public life has always been: is he drawing attention to a cause or to himself?
Be it chartering a boat in 1979 personally to scoop Vietnamese refugees out of the sea, persuading President François Mitterrand to join him on a flight into the line of fire of Serb artillery on a visit to Sarajevo in 1992 or being photographed wading out of the sea carrying a sack of rice on to the shores of Somalia, he puts himself in the picture, with the disaster zone behind him.
In his words: “I prefer cameras to bazookas.”
Kouchner, who turns 71 on November 1, looks set to lose his position of Foreign Secretary in the next reshuffle, not least because he already threatened to resign over the government’s handling of the Roma expulsions.
His life has taken him from the barricades of Parisian streets during the protests of 1968, to a fight over his girlfriend with Fidel Castro in Cuba, war in Nigeria, several ministerial positions in France, absolute ruler of Kosovo and back to France.
Underlying his international activities have been two key philosophies: first, a belief in humanitarian intervention, that countries should use force to intervene to stop human suffering and, second, that if laws prevent you from doing that, break them to get them changed.
Underpinning these philosophies is the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of his grandparents, who had come to France to escape the pogroms of Russia. French historian and philosopher André Glucksmann, who joined Kouchner on his 1979 Vietnam voyage, told the Nouvel Observateur: “He is haunted by this history. Why this inaction? Why this indifference from the world? That day, I really understood what motivates him.”
Kouchner has ceaselessly promoted le droit d’ingérence, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, since he established MSF.
While early on in his life this was limited to non-governmental, medical aid missions, the doctrine has been used, among others, to justify the 1998 bombing of Serbia and the 2003 Iraq war, which Kouchner supported, albeit solely on the grounds of regime change. It has also failed to stop genocide in Rwanda and Sudan.
It was the combination of Kouchner’s background, hatred of convention, grandstanding and, above all, pro-American outlook, that prompted Nicolas Sarkozy to pluck him from the Socialist Party and make him Foreign Minister.
His legacy in this particular role is limited, because Sarkozy was keen to strut world stage and also because the president appointed his own foreign affairs adviser, Claude Guéant.
The Socialist Party expelled him, so Kouchner, who in 2006 even contemplated a run for the presidency, will find himself a lonely figure once out of government, albeit a popular one with the French people. Those around him speak of a well-dressed man who insists on both tutoiement and the title ministre, and likes to call friends “ma biche” regardless of sex.
His English is strongly accented; a leading Israeli newspaper once published that the minister believed Israel would “eat” Iran before it launched a nuclear missile. Both Kouchner and the paper apologised for the “phonetic” confusion over the word “hit”.
Kouchner was born in Avignon, but grew up in Paris. His father was a doctor, and he followed him into medicine. While a student at the Sorbonne, he joined the Young Communists, but was never among their core supporters. In their newspaper Clarté, he explained: “I am a Communist and Rastignac.” The reference to the character in Le Père Goriot, a shameless Parisian social climber, was designed to get up the noses of the far left. He was a self-confessed champagne socialist, gauche caviare to the French. He joined radical left-wing students on a visit to Cuba where his slow dancing with then girlfriend Évelyne Pisier upset the Cuban leader. (He later married Pisier and had two children with her before they divorced.)
Although Kouchner was a soixante-huitard, a greater turning point for him came in August of that year, with a visit to Biafra, a breakaway state of Nigeria, as a doctor with the Red Cross.
The scale of malnutrition, coupled with the institutional silence of the Red Cross (which had also mutely observed the Holocaust) on political matters, pushed Kouchner to create a new organisation that would openly decry such acts and try to force through humanitarian aid.
Médecins Sans Frontières was born in 1971, founded by 12 doctors and journalists, among them Kouchner. However the world-wide Nobel-Prize winning organisation known today was built up after (some in MSF say, because of) his departure in 1979, following the publicity of his Vietnam boat venture.
The project, Un Bateau pour le Vietnam, captured the public’s attention, drawing support from Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron, Michel Foucault, even Brigitte Bardot. It was quickly labelled Un bateau pour Saint-Germain, the upper-class Parisian neighbourhood of most of its supporters.
He caught the attention of both Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who both attended a forum on le droit d’ingérence.
Kouchner is said to have persuaded Mitterrand to fly to Sarajevo in 1992, personally breaking a Serbian blockade and reopening the airport for aid flights. The pair toured the Bosnian capital to the backdrop of mortars and gunfire.
The following year Médecins du Monde, set up by Kouchner in 1980 following his split with MSF, ran a $2m campaign comparing Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic to Hitler, alongside pictures of death camps. It followed accusations of genocide from a Bosnian leader who later admitted were lies.
Seven years later he became the first UN Special Representative for Kosovo as it broke away from Serbia. Critics say his Manichean view of Kosovan Albanian victims against Serbian aggressors did little to help resolve the conflict.
A report he wrote for oil company Total in Burma will forever remain a blot on his record. After a four-day visit and a €25,000 fee, he exonerated the company of any human rights abuses. Whether he was right or not, the speed of the inquiry and the changing hands of money tarnished his heroic doctor image.
The image can be overdone: a photoshoot where he repeatedly posed walking out of the sea carrying a bag of rice to Somalia became a national joke.
If, as expected, he finds himself unemployed at the age of 71, it will be interesting to see what Kouchner’s next step will be. Retirement, however, seems unlikely.