Understanding French policy toward Chad/Sudan? A difficult task (2)
This is the second in a three-part posting by Roland Marchal of CNRS/SciencesPo Paris on French policy towards Chad and Sudan.
Elections time: a new dream team?
The French presidential elections took place early 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy had no history of contacts and friendships with African leaders; he had also shown little interest toward the continent. Yet, he had been in charge of a region on the outskirts of Paris, the département des Hauts de Seine that had had a long history with Africa, notably through a former minister and Gaullist figure, Charles Pasqua. A closer look at this genealogy would have generated more caution in the description of Sarkozy’s lack of interest to Africa and would have foreseen the role Claude Guéant, the Eléysée General Secretary (today de facto but not de jure Prime Minister), is currently playing in framing policies towards Africa. 2007 was also the moment Urgence Darfour, a French offspring of Save Darfur Coalition, emerged in the media. Due to its good connections to some people loved by the French media such as Bernard Kouchner, Bernard Henry Levy and some NGOs – some confessional others not – Urgence Darfour obtained a commitment from Nicolas Sarkozy as well as from the socialist candidate, Ségolí¨ne Royal. The picture of Darfur by the French Urgence Darfour was certainly more approximate than the Save Darfur Coalition’s one but emotion was the key factor, once more. Bernard Kouchner was very much at the junction between the political class and this sudden (and superficial) interest for Darfur: he was an adviser of Ségolí¨ne Royal and a skilled propagandist of some very carefully selected crises.
Once Sarkozy got elected, he wanted to show some fidelity to the commitments made throughout his electoral campaign. Darfur was one of these, especially because there was very little controversy attached to doing everything to reduce the suffering of the Darfur population and the political gains for him both nationally and internationally were indeed positive.
The appointment of Bernard Kouchner as a minister of Foreign Affairs was marginally dictated by this single issue. The latter was of an older generation, had a political life which reflected well his love for being in the media as a long time activist for humanitarian intervention, (as far as they can be popular with the French public) and the famous “droit d’ingérence“. Although popular in the French audience, he was regarded by pundits and politicians with scepticism and sarcasm: he liked himself as much as the causes he defended and was as opportunistic as the rules of the French political arena authorized him to be. His obsession to be seen with those who “count for the world order” had no equivalent among the French political class. He was ready to become a minister at any cost and Sarkozy needed to weaken as much as possible its left wing opposition by co-opting people who had paid allegiance to it at one point, a policy he coined as “ouverture“.
By appointing him as a minister of Foreign Affairs, the newly elected President could push in front of the media someone who against his past views would support a rightwing politician and show that a former adviser to the Socialist candidate could endorse his policies. To put it in a nutshell, he wanted to demonstrate that all French whatever their political opinions should identify themselves with their new President. Moreover, as Kouchner wanted the title more than the ministry, he could also restructure the ministry of Foreign Affairs that lost a number of its departments to other ministries. Bernard Kouchner was careless because he never paid much attention to others and, yet, could use all attributes of power attached to his position. Among those departments, were those that could have restricted Sarkozy’s coercive policies against migrants and protect human rights in a better manner in France. But Kouchner knew that it was more popular to promote them elsewhere.
But this was only one piece in the new institutional puzzle. At the Presidential Palace, a diplomatic cell was appointed that shared little with Bernard Kouchner’s views. All were diplomats of high professional records; all were rightwing oriented, sometimes much more conservative than the average Sarkozy’s supporters. Moreover, at the difference of the previous Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to decide everything on anything. The French governance system is not purely presidential and the Elysée is neither staffed nor organized to do so. Yet, orders had to come from the Presidential Palace on any important issue, the importance being determined by its impact on the French public opinion.
This was a drastic difference with the past on two levels. While in the previous administrations the President had only provided the great political vision and framework, suddenly after May 2007 his advisers became involved in fine-tuning policies though they were not supposed to implement them. While in the past the President and his minister of Foreign Affairs had enjoyed a trustful political relation, with Sarkozy and Kouchner they became potential rivals in front of the media (their common obsession) and with evident differences on many issues. As in other ministries, a way to diminish the discrepancies was to get a Minister’s private office more obedient to the Elysée Palace: among those appointed at the Elysée’s request, one should quote Laurent Contini (whose attitude was questioned in the Zoe’s Arc crisis) and Charlotte Montel. Bernard Kouchner, although unwilling to antagonize his President, had still an autonomy, which he did not use to contradict the most debatable aspects of the French policies on some subjects (use of DNA tests against migrants, arrest of migrant kids attending French school, retention centres and the like, support to debatable regimes).
This institutional setting was dysfunctional in the medium run. Diplomats, for instance, were confused. Should they ask for directives the private office of the Minister as usual or get instructions from the Elysée Palace? Nuances existed and sometimes differences. To make the situation even more confusing, there were also discrepancies inside the Elysée “˜s team between the diplomatic cell and the General Secretary, a long time supporter of the Franí§afrique…