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The Kouchner Conversion

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s appointment of Bernard Kouchner as France’s foreign minister was a brilliant political stroke. Having beaten his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy decided to compound the Socialists’ crisis by appointing to his government several political figures long associated with the center-left. Sarkozy persuaded two women from immigrant backgrounds, Rama Yade and the well-known feminist activist Fadela Amara, to accept sub-cabinet positions, while Kouchner has been the most popular political figure in France for the past several years.

Kouchner’s popularity is a curious phenomenon. Although he has been in politics for decades, he has not held a government post since serving as deputy health minister under former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Yet, whether through the force of his intellect and talent, as he and his supporters say, or his genius at self-promotion, as many of his detractors contend, Kouchner succeeded in remaining at center stage no matter who was France’s president or prime minister.

But the hour was growing late. Kouchner, the co-founder of the relief group Doctors Without Borders, who later split with the organization to found a second humanitarian organization, Doctors of the World, and who ran Kosovo as a United Nations protectorate after NATO’s war with Serbia in 1999, is now 67. Realistically, Sarkozy’s invitation was probably his last chance to play a major political and international role.

But what kind of role? Kouchner did not invent the so-called “droit d’ingerence,” which can be rendered in English as the right of intervention. That title belongs to the Italian legal theorist Mario Bettati. But he is best known as its champion. Since the 1970’s, Kouchner has argued that states have a duty to prevent dictatorial governments from committing the worst abuses against their people. While not denying that state sovereignty was the basis of the international system, Kouchner insisted that it could not be a license for governments to kill.