In Box

France Without Illusions

The French president vowed to take on dictators everywhere. Has he now given up on human rights entirely?


These are tough times for idealists — even in France, birthplace of modern humanitarianism.

Just two years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to make human rights an unprecedented centerpiece of his foreign policy, vowing in his victory speech “to reach out to all those in the world … who are persecuted by tyrants and dictators.” And for a time, his agenda seemed to be off to a good start. Sarkozy chose as foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, cofounder of Doctors Without Borders and long one of Europe’s most eloquent proponents of humanitarian action. They created a new international human rights cabinet — the world’s first — and installed a 30-year-old Muslim woman of Senegalese origin, Rama Yade, to run it.

So it was a stunning moment last December when Kouchner suddenly declared the effort a failure. “There is a permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France,” he told an interviewer. “Running a country obviously draws you away from a certain angélisme [utopian view] of the world.”

This from someone who had spent the last 40 years trying to save civilians caught up in nasty wars from Biafra to Darfur, a man whose legacy includes a Nobel Peace Prize for the organization he founded to act on just those principles he was now renouncing. Even the much-celebrated human rights cabinet was “a mistake,” Kouchner said. In June, Sarkozy eliminated Yade’s job altogether and shifted her to secretary of state for sports.

What happened? Was France admitting that the only workable model for foreign policy is blunt pragmatism? And if France can’t carry out a human rights-based foreign policy, can anyone? It is interesting to note that Kouchner’s comment drew relatively little outrage from anywhere in the French political spectrum — or for that matter in the human rights community. As if a certain fatalism had set in. As if he’d stated the obvious.

In Kouchner’s statement, there was certainly what appeared to be a degree of personal annoyance with the younger and more popular Yade. But there was also a discouraged sense that his human rights agenda had been mugged by reality.

In the preceding months, Kouchner (shown at right in 1981) had registered a series of defeats. He had failed to convince Sarkozy of the need for strong European intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war, despite the threat of a mounting civilian death toll. He had lost a diplomatic battle in the United Nations after the Burmese regime refused to let Western aid into the country following Hurricane Nargis. Kouchner had wanted the U.N. Security Council to specifically cite Burma’s failure to uphold its “responsibility to protect,” seeing the measure as a step toward potential intervention. But it was a lost cause. Russia and China were ready to veto.

Indeed, by last year, Kouchner had come to see Russia and China as reliable protectors of repressive regimes, using their Security Council seats to ensure that the likes of Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were not hit with sanctions over human rights abuses. “There has been a backlash,” he once told me.

Gone were the 1990s, when Russia and China were wallflowers and the Western world could lead spectacular operations in Iraqi Kurdish areas, East Timor, and Kosovo to halt unfolding human rights disasters. Now Sarkozy, the proponent of challenging “tyrants and dictators” everywhere, talks about an era of “relative powers,” when the West’s humanitarian influence is balanced out by other forces.

But is Sarkozy even trying? By the time of his first trip to Moscow, in late 2007, his campaign rhetoric about the “intolerable killing of journalists” had completely vanished. Even after Russia invaded Georgia last year, Sarkozy went to great lengths to keep the relationship on track. Similarly, in 2008 Sarkozy threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games if China didn’t start serious talks with the Dalai Lama. Weeks later, after major French contracts with China seemed in doubt, he backed down.

So who will defend human rights now? Even for Russia and China, human rights can still come in handy — for example, when the priority is to put pressure on a country like Iran over its nuclear program. But giving Russia and China veto power over humanitarian intervention isn’t quite what Kouchner was talking about when he used to invoke, in the old days, “the duty of international meddling.” The world about which Kouchner said those words simply doesn’t exist anymore, and for once he seems to have no answers about the world he finds himself in.

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