Bernard Kouchner: The healer

France's Foreign Minister turns negotiator in Georgia's conflict
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In a refugee camp in Gamsakhurdia in North Ossetia, last Monday, Russian TV cameras clustered around a distinguished visitor. Bernard Kouchner, the centre-left Foreign Minister for a centre-right French President, was in the Caucasus trying to broker a Russian-Georgian ceasefire on behalf of the European Union.

After visiting Georgia earlier that day, M. Kouchner insisted on flying to the northern, officially Russian, half of Ossetia to show concern for the suffering of both sides. "They are all poor sods," he said. Against the advice of senior French diplomats – but with the approval of the Elysée Palace – he visited "victims of Georgian aggression" in one of the nine camps for South Ossetian refugees set up by Moscow.

Kouchner's visit was to receive enormous play on all Russian TV stations that night, just as the French diplomats had feared that it would. A local religious leader came forward – purely by accident? – to address the French Foreign Minister. Russia was quite right to have sent in its troops, the man of religion said. A great country like Russia had "a moral right of intervention" to save the South Ossetians from Georgian oppression and violence.

M. Kouchner replied, rather uncomfortably, that the concept of a "moral right of intervention" was a "French idea". In truth, it is a Kouchner idea.

For four decades, Bernard Kouchner, 68, has been, depending on your viewpoint, a global visionary or a global busybody. Forty years ago this year, as a radical, young doctor, Bernard Kouchner went straight from a leading role in the May 1968 student protests to West Africa to treat victims of the Nigerian civil war. His experiences in Biafra led directly to his co-foundation of Médecins sans Frontières, which he later abandoned in favour of a more political, rather than mostly humanitarian, approach to suffering in the Third World.

In the early 1990s, he wrote a kind of manifesto on the moral right, even duty, of democratic countries to interfere in the internal politics of oppressive nations. The Kouchner manifesto is said to have directly influenced, among others, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the American neo-cons.

Now in a refugee camp in a small town in the Caucasus, M. Kouchner's life's work was being preached back to him – purely by accident? – by a South Ossetian religious leader. Before the Russian TV cameras, "Kouchnerism" was being used to justify a disproportionate Russian blitzkrieg against foolish little Georgia.

This was not the first time in his 15 months in the French foreign ministry that M. Kouchner's past as a moralist and activist has come back to haunt him. The visit to North Ossetia may, all the same, turn out to have been a smart idea. It helped to persuade the Russian government to agree to a provisional ceasefire the next day, before M. Kouchner's boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived in Moscow.

Five days down the road, admittedly, the ceasefire, and the Sarkozy-Kouchner six-point peace plan, have still to be implemented. Russian troops remain on the soil of Georgia proper. French diplomats point out, however, that it took a year to agree a ceasefire in the original Georgian civil war of the early 1990s. The Sarkozy-Kouchner plan, endorsed by a badly split EU and by the suspicious but powerless US, remains the only plan in town. It at least stopped the killing. Kouchner deserves, the diplomats say, some of the credit.

"Kouchner is not especially popular with senior people at the Quai d'Orsay (the French foreign ministry), precisely because he likes to behave as though he is still a 'French doctor' and often ignores the professional advice," one diplomat said. "On this occasion, he may well have been right. Going to North Ossetia helped to bring the Russians aboard."

One close friend of Bernard Kouchner said yesterday: "Looking at Bernard's body language this week, I am sure that he was very uncomfortable with the balanced position that he was having to take. All his instincts must have been crying out to denounce this Soviet-like overreaction and imperial aggression by the Russians."

Another feat of peacemaking faces President Sarkozy and M. Kouchner in the next few weeks – peacemaking within the European Union. EU foreign ministers were dangerously split last Wednesday in just the same way that they divided, disastrously, in the early years of the Balkan wars. A confrontational group of countries, including Britain and the former Warsaw Pact states, believes that this is the moment to face down an aggressive Russia. An appeasing group, including Italy, and crucially Germany, believes that there are faults on both sides and the EU should take a more balanced line (and in any case Russia has all that lovely oil).

It will be for Bernard Kouchner, a man who is more at home in a refugee camp than in an EU negotiating chamber, to try to resolve the conflict. He will begin with an informal foreign ministers' meeting early next month in Avignon, the town where he was born in November 1939. Is he up to it?

One of Kouchner's closest friends in Britain is the Labour MP and former Europe minister, Denis MacShane. "Bernard is the most interesting man to have been the French foreign minister for decades," Mr MacShane said. "He is a man who disproves the old adage that politics is show business for ugly people. He is a good-looking, charismatic man who regularly tops the polls of the most popular politicians of the left in France but was never trusted with the serious job by left-wing governments.

"The key to Bernard is that he is not a tribal, party-political politician. He is a man who has the strange view that politics can be used to make the world a better place. He is a social democrat, a liberal, a passionate European, an Atlanticist – all things which make him a figure of suspicion on the French left.

"He is an intellectual, a deep thinker, a man passionate about ideas but also a man who has enormous enthusiasm for doing things, whether it is skiing or hands-on politics."

Bernard Kouchner's father, also a doctor, was Jewish. His mother was a Protestant. Five years after his birth, Kouchner's paternal grandparents were deported from France and died at Auschwitz . "I ran to Biafra," he once said, "because I was too young for Guernica, Auschwitz, Oradour and Sétif."

After his experiences in the Nigerian civil war, and after training as a gastroenterologist, he co-founded Médecins sans Frontières in 1971. He resigned in 1979 to pursue a political career in which – apart from a brief period as a Euro MP – he has never been an elected politician. He has been minister for overseas aid and health minister in successive socialist-led governments but never received the big job that he craved. Hence his decision to accept President Sarkozy's offer of the foreign ministry in May last year. He was instantly ejected from the Parti Socialiste for giving aid and comfort to the political enemy.

M. Kouchner is a boyish, friendly, plain-talking man – "a man who can light up a room" according to one of his many friends. His many detractors accuse him of being more media star than politician, a man who prefers the simplicity of a stunt or declaration to the messy complexities of "real" politics.

Kouchner has been married twice and has four children. His second wife is Christine Ockrent, a Belgian journalist who is one of France's most respected television news presenters.

Those who dismiss M. Kouchner as a "poseur" refer over and over – to his fury – to an incident when he was health and overseas aid minister in 1992. He was shown on French TV carrying a sack of rice from an aid ship in Somalia. It emerged that M. Kouchner had carried the same sack ashore three times, without emptying it, until the TV crew was satisfied with its take.

M. Kouchner's friends and supporters point to the exemplary consistency of his career, from Biafra to his brief period as UN special representative in Kosovo from 1999 to 2001.

The Kouchner doctrine – that morality cannot stop at borders; that politics, and not just medicine, should be "sans frontières" when confronted with extreme wickedness – used to be a minority position. It has now become widely accepted but also widely hijacked: by George Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq (a war that Kouchner defended) and, most recently, by Russians in Georgia.

M. Kouchner was recently reported in Le Monde to have become depressed by his role at the Quai d'Orsay. Much of the real foreign policy of France in the past 15 months has been conducted by President Sarkozy and his advisers at the Elysée Palace, sometimes in direct confrontation with M. Kouchner's own values-led approach. His attempts to put Kouchnerism into official practice – his suggestions that humanitarian aid should be imposed on Sudan or Burma – came to nothing.

The Georgian conflict has "re-energised" him, his friends say. M. Kouchner believes that the European Union – presided over by France until the year's end – has been given another chance to prove its importance by defending its values in its own backyard. In the early 1990s, Kouchner was in favour of international military intervention against the Serbs but failed to budge the pro-Serb President François Mitterrand. This time around, Bernard Kouchner finds himself in the unfamiliar – and perhaps unsuitable – role of mediator and negotiator, rather than moralist, activist or campaigner.

"Bernard faces a serious problem," Mr MacShane said. "It is impossible for any single European country, or for the European Union as a whole, to make any worthwhile impact when the Big Three, Britain, France and Germany, are not lined up together."

A Life in brief

Born: 1 November 1939, Avignon, France.

Family: Son of Protestant mother and Jewish father; grandparents died at Auschwitz. Twice married, he has five children.

Early Life: Joined Communist Party as a student before being kicked out for attempting to overthrow the leadership. Completed medical degree and qualified as a gastroenterologist in France in the late 1960s.

Career: Co-founded Médecins sans Frontières in 1971 before founding Médecins du Monde. The former won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. French Minister of Health three times. In 1999 he became the UN Special Representative for Kosovo. Currently minister of Foreign and European Affairs, after expulsion from Socialist Party for accepting the position in Fillon's government.

He says: "To be alone as a pioneer ... like we were, was difficult. My strategy was not only to help the people, or transform the world, but to do both."

They Say: "Thanks for intervening in matters that don't concern you" – whispered to him by Nelson Mandela