The End of the Affair

The brief and unlikely political romance between Nicolas Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has come to an end. But the real casualty is France's foreign policy: Once teetering, it is now all but dead.


When France’s Nicolas Sarkozy selected Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister in 2007, it was seen as a great political coup: the newly elected conservative president joining forces on the world stage with one of the country’s most prominent Socialist public figures. Instead, it has proved to be a colossal mismatch of personalities and political points of view — one that reached its denouement in August, when Kouchner delivered a handwritten letter of resignation to Sarkozy. Kouchner is still serving as foreign minister, but the letter, made public by Le Nouvel Observateur on Oct. 6, confirms the extent to which the early promise of a new French foreign policy has foundered on the shoals of domestic politics and infighting. "The past three months have been very hard," Kouchner told a French journalist. "I know, I know I’m leaving."

Far from being simply a one-off clash between two supersized personalities, Kouchner’s fate is emblematic of an executive who has concentrated power within a circle of loyal advisors at the Élysée to the detriment of his foreign minister and the entire apparatus of French diplomacy. Indeed, Sarkozy has appeared willing to sacrifice anything, including the coherency of France’s foreign policy and its international reputation, to the purpose of securing re-election in 2012. The strategy has badly backfired: In the wake of a domestic political crisis over unpopular austerity measures that is spiraling out of control, Sarkozy’s approval ratings have plumbed new depths.

By the time Kouchner delivered his letter, he had been made all but irrelevant in the conduct of France’s foreign policy. Kouchner has been systematically snubbed by the Élysée, which has made decisions regarding major foreign-policy initiatives without consulting him. He apparently had to read the press to find out that France had signed a formal reconciliation with China in April 2009 in which the Élysée stated its opposition to independence for Tibet. France’s most important bilateral relationships — with China, India, Japan, and the United States — are being managed by Jean-David Levitte, Sarkozy’s special advisor for foreign affairs and a former ambassador to Washington. Claude Guéant, the Élysée general secretary, is managing Africa and the Middle East, regions where France maintains several "special relationships" as a former colonial power. And Kouchner has been completely sidelined in the delicate negotiations over the release of the French hostages seized in Niger last month. Allowed neither to resign nor to exercise the normal authority of his desk, Kouchner has been reduced to a pathetic state of limbo.

It’s a startling turnabout for Kouchner, a medical doctor turned humanitarian crusader who co-founded the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders. Admittedly, his tenure as foreign minister has been rocky. Kouchner has made unguarded remarks to journalists, for example on secret intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program, creating problems for France as well as for close allies including the United States. According to the Nouvel Observateur, citing sources close the foreign minister, Kouchner’s outsized reputation bought him a significant honeymoon period, but eventually even his longtime friends grew frustrated with a man seemingly unfocused and unable to assert leadership over a ministry where morale is at an all-time low.

The situation at the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters at the Quai d’Orsay is so bad that two of Kouchner’s predecessors, Alain Juppé and Hubert Védrine, were moved to sound the alarm in an opinion piece published in July in Le Monde. The former foreign ministers protested an "unprecedented weakening" of the diplomatic and cultural apparatus of the country to the point of global embarrassment: "The effect is devastating," they wrote. "The instrument is on the point of breaking, as the whole world can see. All of our partners are aware of it." Juppé and Védrine lamented the 20 percent decline in France’s foreign-affairs budget and personnel over the past 25 years, and they warned that the austerity measures imposed by the Sarkozy government — projected to eliminate three-fourths of posts vacated by retiring diplomats between now and 2013 — risk sinking an already crippled ship of state.

The effects are clear. A friend in New Delhi, who attended July 14 Bastille Day celebrations at the French Embassy there, told me that the ambassador opened his remarks to the assembled guests by thanking the Indian companies that had sponsored the event. "Oh, that’s usual now," explained a diplomat at the Quai d’Orsay when I related the story. "There’s no money for anything." At a recent reception welcoming new Fulbright scholars to France, U.S. Ambassador Charles H. Rivkin took pains, in perfect French, to thank the Foreign Ministry for its continued support in a time of financial difficulty for the decades-long program. As the ambassador knows, the ministry is under intense pressure to cut funding for just about everything.

The cabinet shake-up Sarkozy promised after last March’s regional elections in which his UMP party suffered severe losses is the subject of ever more fevered speculation in the French media. It seems all but guaranteed that Prime Minister François Fillon — whose popularity rating soars above Sarkozy’s at this point and who recently said he had never considered Sarkozy to be a "mentor" — will leave the government; but it is not at all clear who his successor will be. No specific departures or replacements have been announced, and with the government in crisis mode due to the unrelenting strikes paralyzing the country, Sarkozy is now saying he won’t act until mid-November. In any case, Kouchner is not the only minister looking to jump ship. Dominique Bussereau, the transportation minister, has said he’s ready to leave. Several Socialists who joined the government early on have already resigned.

Given the increasingly public tensions between the foreign minister and the president following the August letter of resignation, Kouchner appears certain to join the ranks of the departed. It is less clear at this point whether he will move into, as had been expected, the newly created post of "Defender of Rights," an rather Orwellian job title given the Sarkozy government’s current legal troubles with the European Commission over its treatment of the Roma and the condemnation it has received from the United Nations over its policies toward immigrants.

In a speech in Grenoble in July, Sarkozy called immigrants a particularly dangerous source of public disorder and pledged to strip naturalized citizens who committed certain crimes against the state, such as killing a police officer, of their citizenship. The speech neatly complemented a directive to round up and deport itinerant Roma, a controversial move that was carried out in August and September over the vociferous criticism of most of Europe. Rather than criticize the policies publicly, Kouchner handed in his resignation.

Playing the security card against outsiders, especially immigrants of non-European origin, has historically been good politics for Sarkozy. He needs all the help he can get now: Like the rest of Europe, France is reeling from the fallout of the global financial crisis and increasingly vociferous public reaction to a painful austerity plan that Sarkozy is pushing to reduce the national deficit. Seven months after the drubbing his party took in last March’s regional elections, his poll numbers have hit record lows, with only 31 percent of the electorate expressing confidence in his presidency. Although the Socialists and Greens on the left did very well last March, so did the far-right National Front. Knowing he has scant chance of wooing voters from the left, Sarkozy has made a coldly political calculation: There is simply no way he can win in 2012 without stealing voters from the National Front. Hence, the Roma had to go.

But this is not a good time for chaos in French foreign policy — a number of international crises cry out for strong and coherent diplomatic leadership. Two French journalists were kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2009, and five French citizens were kidnapped from a uranium mining facility in Niger this September by an al Qaeda-affiliated group. All are believed to be alive, and their fate weighs on the French government. In July, a French aid worker in Africa was kidnapped and killed by a group also claiming al Qaeda affiliation. Meanwhile, this September, France was placed on the highest threat alert level after warnings by U.S. and other intelligence services that a terrorist attack on one or more Western European targets might be imminent. At one point, the base of the Eiffel Tower was cleared of tourists as a precaution.

Sarkozy is nothing if not sensitive to his image abroad, especially among his peers. He has made no secret of his delight in taking on a two-year stint as president of the G-8/G-20, beginning next year. This normally symbolic role is on track to be invested with special significance by the French president, which is perhaps why the newly unveiled 2011 budget for the Foreign Ministry shows a small increase, including 50 million euros for activities related to the G-8/G-20 alone.

Meanwhile, French citizens are angrily focused on Sarkozy’s unpopular austerity measures, especially the reform of the retirement regime. The strikes currently crippling the country are endorsed by 71 percent of the electorate, according to a poll published Oct. 18 by Le Parisien. Given the unpopularity of Sarkozy at home and the failure of France under his government to assert itself on the world stage — either as the defender of human rights Kouchner might have wished it to be or as a triumphant leader of a European Union reeling from the economic crisis — a symbolic presidency over the G-8/G-20 might be the best bet for an executive likely to be a lame duck between now and the 2012 elections.

On Oct. 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Israel-Palestine summit planned to take place in Paris at the end of October would be postponed indefinitely. The occasion could have been a chance for the Sarkozy-Kouchner duo to show off French diplomatic finesse. Alas, it looks all too probable now that the main legacy of their troubled foreign-policy experiment will be a further weakening of France’s stature in the world. Instead, Sarkozy’s cabinet is huddled in crisis mode, its attention focused on the domestic political front where strikes, demonstrations, and fuel shortages have all but paralyzed the country. Unable to put its own house in order, France’s foreign policy has been severely compromised during the brief if unlikely tenure of the Socialist humanitarian Bernard Kouchner in the conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy — and its aspirations to impose its values or project its power outside its borders now seems but a pipe dream.  

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