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Last Updated: Friday, 18 May 2007, 08:15 GMT 09:15 UK
Profile: Bernard Kouchner
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

The humanitarian activist and former Health Minister Bernard Kouchner is widely admired in France, not least for his passionate, often outspoken declarations on human rights and the need to intervene to protect them.

Bernard Kouchner
Mr Kouchner: There is a moral right to intervene in humanitarian crises

A doctor by training, he co-founded the Nobel prize-winning Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in 1971 to put his beliefs into action, after working as a young doctor for the Red Cross in Biafra in 1968 during Nigeria's civil war.

Seeing children there starve to death fired in him a lifetime's commitment to the cause of preventing humanitarian crises and bearing witness.

By creating MSF, "we were establishing the moral right to interfere inside someone else's country", he once told an interviewer.


Bernard Kouchner came to prominence in France in 1979 when he chartered a cargo ship and took it to the South China Sea with a group of doctors to rescue Vietnamese boat people trying desperately to make it to Hong Kong.

However, his high-profile place in that project led to a falling-out between him and the organisation he helped to create.

So in 1980, he set up the rival organisation, Medecins du Monde, to continue his work.

Bernard Kouchner (far left), Segolene Royal (centre) and other colleagues from the Socialist Party (file image from 1997)
The inclusion of a socialist in Sarkozy's cabinet will surprise some

Mr Kouchner remains a popular public figure in France, though not necessarily with his socialist colleagues, many of whom see his acceptance of the foreign minister's job under the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy as a betrayal.

He has long had a complex relationship with the party, taking a more pro-American line than many French socialists and often calling for renewal and reform on the left.

His last cabinet post was as a socialist health minister, in the government of the late President Francois Mitterrand, appointed in 1992.

Since then, Mr Kouchner, 67, has served as UN special representative to Kosovo from 1999-2001, where colleagues praised his "can-do" attitude - though some criticised what they saw as his impulsiveness and refusal to take advice.

In favour of Iraq war

In 2003, he was one of the very few French politicians to come out in favour of the US-led military intervention in Iraq, saying that he was against war but also against Saddam Hussein's regime, and that the US offensive had the merit of over-throwing "an evil dictator".

How much freedom the country's new foreign minister will have to decide foreign policy is open to debate

Mr Kouchner had seen for himself the suffering of the Kurdish population under Saddam Hussein when he travelled there in the early 1990s with Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the late president, on a humanitarian mission.

More recently, he has criticised Russia for human rights abuses in Chechnya, and spoken out on the atrocities against civilians in Darfur.

The outspoken Mr Kouchner knows how to use the media to best effect to make his point or back a cause, though he was criticised by some in France in 1992 for images of him wading ashore alone in Somalia during the famine, carrying a sack of rice on his back.

His partner, Christine Ockrent, is a top French TV presenter and political journalist.


France's new foreign minister is expected to implement Mr Sarkozy's promise to give high priority to human rights and fight global warming, and also to help repair relations with the US after their chill in 2003.

This will very clearly be a much more Washington-friendly French government than the previous one.

However, how much freedom the country's new foreign minister will have to decide foreign policy is open to debate.

The French president has traditionally been deeply involved in shaping foreign affairs, and Mr Sarkozy has pledged to be a more hands-on president than most.

Mr Kouchner also has to share the task of advising on foreign policy with a new French national security adviser, a post Mr Sarkozy has modelled on the White House's National Security Council.

He gave the job to Jean-David Levitte, an expert on international affairs and experienced diplomat, and most recently the French ambassador in the US.

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