Sarkozy Names His Cabinet

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France's new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, promised a government embodying his reformist mission, and, so far, he hasn't disappointed. Early Friday, he unveiled a minimalist 15-member cabinet, pared down from predecessor Jacques Chirac's 31. Its mix of ages, races, political backgrounds and rough gender parity is intended to reflect the face of a French society ready for a long-postponed social and economic revitalization.

Perhaps most the controversial (though not unexpected) appointment was naming Socialist Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Affairs minister, a move that may reveal the staunchly conservative Sarkozy's intent to give issues like human rights and democratic and financial accountability greater weight in France's international relations. A trained physician, Kouchner founded the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) relief group in 1971, and used the diplomacy skills he learned in humanitarian crises to launch a political career. Socialist opponents have called Sarkozy's recruitment of Kouchner a ploy to co-opt and thus weaken the left ahead of June legislative elections. Supporters counter that the pick is proof of Sarkozy's commitment to seek public and political consensus as he modernizes France.

But the broader message behind Kouchner's appointment — that Sarkozy intends to solidify presidential control over France's foreign affairs — has been largely overlooked so far. While Chirac began the process of relocating the pole of diplomacy from the Foreign Ministry to the Elysée, Sarkozy seems intent on completing that process. Sarkozy advisors say that will involve the creation of a National Security Council similar to the one used by U.S. Presidents to provide him advice and analysis on international and diplomatic issues. The unit will import around 30 foreign policy strategists from the Foreign Ministry, and it will be directed by Jean-David Levitte — a former Chirac advisor, United Nations ambassador and, since 2002, a well-respected ambassador to the U.S.

While that won't leave Kouchner without anything to do, it does mean the nature of his role will differ from previous foreign ministers, likely becoming a more specialized function that will utilize Kouchner's humanitarian background. "The Foreign Minister is now partly a protocol position, partly a humanitarian aid and development role," says Jean-Christophe Rufin, an award-winning author, former diplomat and one-time vice president of the Médecins Sans Frontières. "You're not going to see Kouchner riding herd on Franco-German relations, but that's not what he's interested in anyway."

A veteran of numerous wars, refugee exoduses, natural disasters and the crises they generate, Kouchner champions what he has called the "right of interference": the intervention of states and non-governmental organizations into calamities provoked or neglected by national governments. He's similarly called on foreign policy and development aid to be linked to the observance of human rights and accountability — stances shared by Sarkozy. "If you look at some of the things Kouchner has said about creating co-development programs that benefit the recipient as well as the donor country's interests, you see he's on the same line as Sarkozy," says a Sarkozy advisor. A former health minister in France's last leftist government, Kouchner has repeatedly angered fellow Socialists since leaving office by criticizing the party's resistance to change and infighting among its leaders. Later, Kouchner did something even more blasphemous: he failed to condemn the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Although the leftist politicians were enraged, Kouchner continued to rival even Sarkozy in the nation's popularity polls.

Those qualities have won Kouchner plaudits from Washington — including former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. Though Kouchner's liberal politics won't thrill the current Administration, the pragmatism and general Atlanticist view he shares with Sarkozy should help improve relations with the U.S. While neither man is the rabid pro-American often depicted, France's new political odd couple do share a similar diplomatic style likely to thaw the recent trans-Atlantic freeze.