Bernard Kouchner, Communiste et Rastignac

Christopher Caldwell reviews Pierre Péan's biography of Bernard Kouchner, Le Monde selon K., in the LRB:

It is Kouchner, more than anyone, who has eroded the distinction between philanthropy and combat. As a young gastroenterologist and self-described ‘mercenary of emergency medicine’, he helped launch Médecins sans frontières in the early 1970s. He broadcast the plight of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, advised Mitterrand in the 1980s, roused public indignation over events in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and served as interim governor of Kosovo after Nato’s attack on Serbia; more recently he has become the most prominent of several socialists in Sarkozy’s cabinet. Kouchner may not have invented the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’, but he has been its symbol for decades.

Most French people would say this is a good thing. In a country that is cynical about politics and elites of all sorts, Kouchner has been consistently beloved, with approval ratings above 60 per cent. He is both a dashing man of adventure and a political idealist – the closest thing present-day France has to a Malraux. His reputation even survived his support for the invasion of Iraq.

In February, however, the country’s most celebrated investigative journalist published an exposé accusing Kouchner of various intellectual, political and financial misdeeds. Pierre Péan is best known for having revealed that the dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, had given diamonds worth millions of francs to Giscard d’Estaing, and for uncovering the extent of Mitterrand’s work for the Vichy government as a young man. In Le Monde selon K., Péan considers a number of uncomfortable moments in Kouchner’s career as a consultant. More important, if less controversially, he argues that Kouchner’s transnational humanitarianism has made France’s foreign policy interests subservient to those of the United States – indeed, that humanitarianism as he practises it is just a larval form of neoconservatism.

The book hit Paris like a bomb. Kouchner accused Péan of anti-semitism and rallied celebrity friends to defend him, from Bernard-Henri Lévy at home to Hillary Clinton and Kofi Annan abroad. Newspapers of the left – notably Libération – opened their columns to Péan, while Le Monde attacked his book. The news weekly Le Point conducted an independent investigation of Péan’s allegations and generally corroborated them. Le Monde selon K. is a brave and important book: though intemperate, frequently unfair and sometimes slapdash, it levels charges against Kouchner’s militarised humanitarianism that demand an answer – and neither Kouchner nor any of his defenders has yet provided one.