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.