Sarko and the Ghosts of May 1968



In the last major speech of his successful presidential campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy launched into a bizarre attack on May 1968. “May 1968 imposed intellectual and moral relativism on us all,” he declared. The heirs of May ’68 imposed the idea that there was no longer any difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness. “The heritage of May 1968 introduced cynicism into society and politics.”

Sarkozy even blamed the legacy of May ’68 for immoral business practices : the cult of money, short term profit, speculation, the abuses of finance capitalism. The May ’68 attack on ethical standards helped to “weaken the morality of capitalism, to prepare the ground for the unscrupulous capitalism of golden parachutes for rogue bosses”.

Did this mean that the new president plans to lead France back to its stodgy, morally pristine pre-May ’68 past? Certainly not. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was an apolitical, television-addicted teenager in May 1968, living in a bourgeois milieu aghast at the disorder in the streets, is himself an exemplary heir of the ambiguous May ’68 he castigated in his electoral diatribe.

May ’68 in France was a social explosion that shook the country into its own version of the contemporary phase of Western development. Whatever the diverse intentions and illusions of its participants, the most extraordinary aspect of May ’68 was its own reflection in the media. The most potent lesson was the extraordinary power of media images. Nobody has absorbed that lesson more thoroughly and profitably than Nicolas Sarkozy.

The most fundamental of the many contradictions crisscrossing the French May ’68 upheaval opposed the disciplined Communist Party to the radical students. The students’ discovery of their own power to shake the very structures of the state created the widespread illusion of an imminent revolution. With seven million workers on strike, the Communist Party used its influence to steer the massive workers’ strike into a compromise deal with de Gaulle’s panicky government. Whether or not their own revolution was a fantasy, the May ’68 generation blamed the Communists for betraying it by settling for mere wage raises and union benefits. As a result, anti-communism is a significant part of the ideological heritage of the May ’68 generation.

A serious strand of the radical movement tried to carry the revolution into the factories. A more successful strand went into the media. The “revolution” moved its center of gravity from the working class and third world liberation to the more personal and middle class issues of a “new left” focused on sexual liberation, identity politics, ecology and human rights.

The new Right takes over the old New Left

In his first days as President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy has demonstrated that new left values are perfectly compatible with the modern right. Sarkozy has grabbed hold of those “values” and run away with them.

* Parity between men and women. Sarkozy has put together a government with eight male and seven female cabinet ministers. Women occupy the two major posts dealing with law and order: Justice and the Interior. In the West, there is no longer any real difference between left and right when it comes to women’s equality.

* Racial and ethnic equality. Sarkozy has appointed Rachida Dati, a 41-year-old daughter of North African immigrants, as Minister of Justice. This is in line with his proclaimed desire to adopt a policy of “positive discrimination” in favor of ethnic minorities, on the model of affirmative action in the United States. Dati’s father was an immigrant factory worker from Morocco and her mother is Algerian. This photogenic woman will be in charge of carrying through Sarkozy’s judicial program, intended to crack down even harder on juvenile crime in the banlieues from which she came.

*Ecology. The environment has been promoted from a minor ministry with scarcely any budget to the ranking cabinet post: a new Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development under former prime minister Alain Juppé. This may have delivered the coup de grace to the French green party, les Verts, already on the ropes after a miserable showing in the first round of the presidential elections. The universal acceptance of global warming and its supposed perils, far from strengthening the Greens, has pulled the rug out from under them ­ at least for now. The new government will adopt environment-friendly fiscal measures to the hope of stimulating a new business cycle, in contrast to restrictive “green” projects often portrayed as anti-growth and thus implying an unpopular lowering of the standard of living.

*Human rights. This is by far the most dangerously ambiguous of these “values” that Sarkozy has lifted from the post-economic left. By his choice of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, Sarkozy has scrapped “realism” in favor of “humanitarian intervention” as the basis of French foreign policy.

The good news is that the world has changed so that even the right embraces such progressive causes.

The bad news is that universally accepted values can, by their very nature, be used for a range of purposes, even as pretexts for oppression and war.

Kouchner: from medicine to media

Presenting Kouchner’s appointment as a generous “opening to the left” is the bitterest joke Sarkozy has played so far on the Socialist Party. If the French Socialist Party is embarrassed, it has only itself to blame. Because of Kouchner’s media fame, the Socialists have let him use the party to advance his career, even though his “socialism” has consisted in advising them to drop socialism completely, and once into the European Parliament on a Socialist ticket he joined another group, the Left Radicals.

Kouchner has not “gone over to the right”: that is where he has been for about three decades, but the Socialist Party has been too opportunistic to pay attention. May 1968 was probably the last time Kouchner was really on the left, but he has been dining out on that reputation ever since, as charter member of the media elite known as the “caviar left”.

In May 1968, Kouchner jumped into the political fray as a strike leader in the medical faculty of the University of Paris. His opposition to the establishment did not last long. Four months later, he joined a medical team organized by the French government to provide humanitarian aid to the short-lived secessionist republic of Biafra. This medical mission was the humanitarian side of an undercover French intervention that also provided military aid to the Biafra rebels, whose breakaway region in southeastern Nigeria happened to include the country’s vast oil resources.

In May 1967, following escalating conflict between Nigerian army officers belonging to the Christian Igbo (or Ibo) ethnic group and Muslim Hausas, Igbo leaders proclaimed their own independent Republic of Biafra. A bloody civil war ensued. Biafra received covert military and other aid from France, South Africa, Portugal and Israel. Armed by Britain and the Soviet Union, the Nigerian army succeeded in imposing an economic blockade to starve Biafra into submission. By January 1970, the Igbo resistance collapsed, and the oil-rich area was reincorporated into Nigeria.

Kouchner rapidly shifted from doctoring to propaganda. Back in Paris in 1969, he cooperated with French intelligence services to found a Committee against “genocide in Biafra”. Certainly the civilians of Biafra suffered a terrible famine, but the use of the term “genocide” serves a political purpose by portraying a conflict over control of territory as a one-sided assault aimed at exterminating a population.

The use of humanitarian missions to arouse international sympathy for one side of a conflict marked a sharp break with the International Red Cross tradition of maintaining strict neutrality in conflicts, in order to gain access to war zones. In December 1971, thirteen doctors who had worked in Biafra broke with the Red Cross to form Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders). Kouchner was the co-founder who from then on devoted himself most assiduously to the publicity side.

Initially, under the impact of comparisons with Nazi genocide in World War II, this new approach was welcomed as more moral than the old Red Cross discretion. The catch is that it is based on two questionable assumptions. First, the assumption that in every conflict, there is a “good” side made up of victims and a “bad” side that wants to kill them all. And second, that Western intervention, aroused by the media, can solve these problems by force. Little by little, the “realistic” school of thought that casts doubt on these assumptions has been discredited as immoral.

The Biafra tragedy set a pattern. One or more Western powers back a minority secession. The existing regime cracks down brutally on the rebels, all the more in that it suspects the Western backers of trying to exploit the rebellion in order to rip off territory or resources for their own purposes. Humanitarian workers sound the alarm and photographers send heart-rending images of human suffering to Western media. Western humanitarians describe the tragedy as “genocide” and call for military intervention. Whether or not intervention ensues, the populations involved continue to be victims of mutual hatred, which is intensified by the media dramatization.

Throughout the 1970s, a decade during which an array of far left grouplets wore themselves out, preparing the way for the anticommunist ideological offensive led by the “new philosophers”, Kouchner discovered the political usefulness of catastrophe journalism. The climax came in 1979, when he joined with the new philosophers in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture, “a boat for Vietnam”. By calling media attention to the plight of Vietnamese “boat people”, fleeing the economic misery of their war-ravaged country, the French humanitarians made no significant contribution to the wellbeing of the long-suffering Vietnamese. However, they had found an acceptable way to denounce what they called “the Vietnamese gulag”, thus turning sympathy away from the Vietnamese liberation movement that had won almost universal admiration during its resistance to the U.S. war. By ignoring the factor of economic hardship caused by years of U.S. bombing, the gesture was a significant step in redefining “the left” as concerned exclusively and militantly with “human rights”, regardless of context. It is scarcely an accident that this coincided with the “human rights” campaign led by President Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski to recover U.S. moral standing after the Vietnamese disaster.

By this time, Kouchner’s exploitation of his role as co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières as humanitarian credentials for his political propaganda had caused a fierce rift within the organization. Kouchner left MsF to create a rival group, Médecins du Monde (MdM, World Doctors), which has pursued the Kouchner line of espousing “humanitarian intervention”, including military intervention.

In January and February of 1993, Médecins du Monde spent around two million dollars in a publicity campaign, including some 300,000 posters and TV spots featuring film stars Jane Birkin and Michel Piccoli, designed to identify Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic with Hitler and the Bosnian Serb prison camps with Nazi extermination camps. (See my book Fools’ Crusade, Monthly Review Press, p.74.)

This advertising campaign was replete with factual lies. But for Kouchner, moral zeal clearly outranks truthfulness on the value scale. The original idea to identify temporary Bosnian Serb prison camps as the equivalent of Nazi death camps came from the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Alija Izetbegovic. In 2003, Kouchner visited Izetbegovic on his death bed, where the following exchange, (as recounted by Kouchner in his Les Guerriers de la Paix, Paris, Grasset, 2004, pp.373-374.) took place in the presence of Richard Holbrooke:

Kouchner: “You remember President Mitterrand’s visit? In the course of that conversation you spoke of the existence of ‘extermination camps’ in Bosnia. You repeated that in front of the journalists. That provoked considerable emotion throughout the world. François sent me to Omarska and we opened other prisons. They were horrible places, but people were not systematically exterminated. Did you know that?

Izetbegovic “Yes. I thought that my revelations could precipitate bombings. Yes, I tried, but the assertion was false. There were no extermination camps whatever the horror of those places.”

Kouchner concludes: “The conversation was magnificent, that man at death’s door hid nothing from us of his historic role. Richard and I expressed our immense admiration.”

For Kouchner, the fact that an “historic role” is based on falsification elicits only admiration. The Yugoslav wars of disintegration were the ideal occasion to put into practice what by then had become his trademark doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. This coincided perfectly with the United States need to provide NATO with a new post-Cold War doctrine allowing the military alliance to survive and expand. The doctrine went into full action in March 1999, when NATO began its two and a half month bombing of Yugoslavia. As his reward, Kouchner was given the post of United Nations high commissioner in charge of civil administration of occupied Kosovo (UNMIK). As virtual dictator of Kosovo from July 2, 1999, to January 2001, Kouchner demonstrated the nature of his “humanitarianism”: fawning favoritism toward the NATO-designated “victims”, that is, the Albanian majority, along with sporadic efforts to use his dashing charm to placate representatives of the besieged Serbs. The result was disastrous. Instead of promoting reconciliation and mutual understanding, he allowed the province to slip ever further under the control of armed clans and gangsters, who have terrorized non-Albanians with impunity ever since.

Kouchner is a selective humanitarian. The victims who arouse his indignation always just happen to be favored by French or U.S. imperial interests: the Biafrans, the non-communist Vietnamese, the Albanians of Kosovo. He never got so excited by the plight of Nicaraguan victims of U.S.-backed Contra murders and sabotage in the 1980s, nor about ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Roma in Kosovo after he took over, much less about Palestinian victims of Israeli ethnic cleansing.

Nor do the victims of harsh military rule in Myanmar inspire his crusading zeal, at least not in 2003, when he was paid 25,000 euros by the French petroleum company Total to write a report on Total’s activities in that country. The 19-page report, written after a short guided tour through Total facilities, defended Total’s construction of a gas pipeline in Myanmar from accusations that the company was profiting from the government’s use of slave labor in construction projects. Now, it may be that the company was as innocent as Kouchner said. But it is certain that Kouchner was not chosen for his investigative thoroughness, but for his “humanitarian” reputation.

It is not surprising, then, that following his appointment as Foreign Minister, Médecins sans Frontières has publicly called on Kouchner to stop using its brand name as a way to establish his humanitarian credentials. In reality, Kouchner has long since stopped being anything but a publicist for selective intervention.

A Franco-American axis of good?

The prospect of this lightweight publicity-hound as foreign minister of France is both alarming and comical. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

If you want someone to justify a military intervention, Kouchner is your man. Had he been running the Quai d’Orsay in March 2003, his contribution to the Iraqi débacle would have been to advise George W. Bush to drop the “weapons of mass destruction” stuff, and wage his war for “human rights”, in order to “get rid of the dictator, Saddam Hussein”. At least, that it what he has said repeatedly since. Kouchner thinks it’s a shame GWB used the wrong pretext for destroying Iraq. He even blamed France for “forcing” the United States to speed up the invasion by brandishing the threat of a UN Security Council veto. It doesn’t occur to him that the Cheney-Wolfowitz crowd considered that scaring the American people into the illusion of “self-defense”, would work better than appealing to their altruism. In either case, Iraq is in ruins, which doesn’t seem to disturb France’s most famous career humanitarian.

So far, there is no clear indication that Sarkozy wants to involve France in a war. So what, then, is the use of Kouchner? Certainly, his experience as head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) did nothing to alter the impression that he is much less gifted at administration than at self-promotion. But that is the main talent of his new boss, who is not one to want to share the limelight. Aside from helping Sarkozy’s party sweep the forthcoming parliamentary elections, it is not certain what is the use of Kouchner or how long he may be kept on the job.

He has started off in typical fashion, making off-the-wall statements designed to sound good in the media. The creation of a special international tribunal to try the (unidentified) assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, “shows the will of the international community to reinforce the stability of Lebanon”, according to Kouchner. In reality, the international politicization of the case is almost certain to further destabilize that country. Kouchner went on to say that the special tribunal corresponded to “the wishes of the Lebanese people, of all sides and all religious beliefs”, which again is simply not true. Perhaps up to half the Lebanese people suspect that an international tribunal sponsored by the Western powers is being set up to be used as an instrument for blaming Syria, as a pretext for war and to incriminate Hezbollah, constantly described as “Syria’s ally”. This Western-sponsored tribunal will certainly not take into consideration the widely held suspicion that the Israelis, or Hariri’s right-wing domestic enemies, or both, had more to do with the recent wave of assassinations than Syria, which has been the main loser in the Hariri affair.

Next, Kouchner got into the Darfur act by proposing that French armed forces in Chad create a “humanitarian corridor” to protect humanitarian aid to victims of the Darfur conflict in neighboring Sudan. The very same French humanitarian organizations that provided the initial moral foundation for Kouchner’s intervention advocacy immediately disavowed this idea as inappropriate.

Denis Lemasson of Médécins sans Frontières, which currently has 2,000 workers aiding civilians in Darfur, called Kouchner’s proposal “dangerous”, because of the confusion it would create between military and humanitarian operations. Any military intervention would force the withdrawal of most aid organizations and make the situation worse than it is today, he stressed.

All the French aid organizations ­ MsF, Action contre la Faim, Solidarités and even Médecins du Monde (MdM) — agree that the only possible way to end the civil war between the Sudanese army, Janajaweed militia and various rebel groups must be a political settlement, not military intervention. MdM president Pierre Micheletti points out that the population is scattered “like leopard spots” across a region the size of France, in enclaves controlled by one side or another, with no front lines.

Lemasson observes that past experiences of “humanitarian interference” confirm their worries. The American “military-humanitarian” operation in Somalia in 1992, the “security zones” in Bosnia, all created illusions and led to disaster. And, adds Alain Boinet, the head of Solidarités, the failure in Iraq proves that peace cannot be imposed.

So Kouchner has arrived too late. He is too late to jump on the Bush bandwagon to hell in Iraq. He is already thoroughly discredited among those who know what “humanitarian intervention” is really all about, and who have tended to revert to the old Red Cross model of neutrality in order to gain access to victims. He retains his popularity in the general public only because his carefully cultivated media image has not been put to a publicly scrutinized reality test.

Kouchner may be a comic figure, but his comedy conceals two tragedies. One is the tragedy of the hopes for genuine social change that flourished in May ’68, only to be dashed forty years later by the alliance between a Sarkozy who repudiates them and a Kouchner who is their parody. The other is the tragedy of what French foreign policy could and should have been, briefly glimpsed during the memorable February 14, 2003, speech of Dominique de Villepin to the United Nations Security Council. Contrary to rules and to custom, the gathering burst into applause. It seemed, for a moment, that France could be a voice for reason, for realism, for peace, and for a better world.

hySuch a France was and is desperately needed. But what we’ve got instead is another poodle.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. She lives in Paris and can be reached at




Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at