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Archive for Monday, June 25, 2007

New French leadership a gift for Bush

June 25, 2007

"Loyalty is good. Efficiency is better." - Nicolas Sarkozy.

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— France's new president is a hurricane of fresh air. In five weeks, Nicolas Sarkozy has fashioned a government unlike anything the French have seen in diversity and appeal across party lines. He has launched or endorsed new French initiatives on Darfur, Kosovo, Lebanon and European integration. He has even appointed staff watchdogs to hold him to the sweeping campaign promises he made.

The impulse to change and to surprise extends even into French foreign policy, normally a model of continuity and obsessive self-regard. This French moment of flexibility may present an opening for the battered and fading Bush administration to steady some of its faltering policies abroad.

After his impressive May 6 victory over Segolene Royal, Sarkozy stunned and infuriated the Socialists by luring Bernard Kouchner, consistently rated in polls as the party's most popular figure, to become his foreign minister. Equally upset were some members of Sarkozy's own neo-Gaullist party as this and other prize jobs escaped their grasp. Sarkozy turned their complaints aside by saying that mere party loyalty would not be enough to win a place in his Cabinet.

He has driven that message home since the June 17 parliamentary elections, in which his party won a comfortable but not overwhelming majority. He has expanded his Cabinet of political all-stars to include more Socialists and centrists and has promoted women of African and Arab descent to key posts.

Fadela Amara, a militant feminist who has led street protests demanding rights and protection for Muslim women in France, is suddenly Sarkozy's deputy minister for urban affairs. Rachida Dati, 41 and the daughter of North African immigrants, holds the prestigious Justice Ministry portfolio. This is, in short, a Cabinet that exceeds any U.S. administration - much less former French governments - in its ethnic, social and political diversity and daring.

Skeptics charge that Sarkozy is engaging in window dressing, that he will run the government from the Elysee Palace through his own staff. I tend to take him at his word when he says that only a government that looks like France can succeed in persuading the French to accept profound change. And he may have learned something from the horrendous consequences for the Bush administration of having tried to run every Cabinet department from the White House.

There is some evidence to that effect. Immediately after being sworn in, Sarkozy reached out to the foreign and defense ministries to organize a series of unpublicized but rigorous foreign policy reviews - a standard practice for new presidents in Washington but not in Paris. And his inspired choice of Kouchner to head the Quai d'Orsay reinforces my sense that Sarkozy can tolerate independent-minded, forceful personalities - if they succeed.

Accurately described by the BBC as "a hard-line humanitarian," Kouchner knows the world not through diplomatic gabfests in comfortable conference halls in Geneva or Tokyo, but by having worked as a physician with the dispossessed, the starving and the sick throughout the Third World.

He was a founder of Doctors Without Borders, and served as United Nations administrator of Kosovo. He knows Iraq's president - Jalal Talabani - from Talabani's days as a guerrilla chieftain. His past encounters with Sudan's foreign minister as a rebel fighting in desert wastes paved the way for a productive visit to Khartoum by Kouchner this month.

Today, Kouchner will host Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other foreign ministers of an expanded contact group on Darfur. He will also explain to Rice in greater detail a promising French proposal to bridge differences with Russia on independence for Kosovo, and on French plans for a Paris conference later this month bringing together the leaders of Lebanon's warring factions.

"It is useful that I have known people who have been rebels and dissidents and are now actors in these conflicts. Useful, and totally incomprehensible when I think about it," Kouchner told a friend recently. He has treated life as an art form in which he plays a hero's role, which he will continue from a ministerial palace on the left bank of the Seine.

A dedicated campaigner against human rights abuses - and thus a longtime adversary of Saddam Hussein, whose ouster he supported - Kouchner is open to working with the United States, as is Sarkozy and Jean-David Levitte, the new president's talented foreign affairs adviser at the Elysee and former ambassador to Washington. History has presented the Bush administration with an important gift that it should not ignore.

- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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