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Darfur to top agenda for French foreign minister

May 18, 2007 (PARIS) — France’s new foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, a maverick left-winger and champion of human rights, will likely make breaking the diplomatic deadlock over Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region his top priority, experts said Friday.

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The leader of the SLM, Abdelwhaid al-Nur, welcomed by the former French minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the campaigners en favor of Darfur plight in France, Tuesday March 20, 2007. (AP)

But diplomats will be watching closely to see how much room for manoeuvre President Nicolas Sarkozy leaves his star recruit, whose appointment is one of the big surprises of the right-wing government line-up.

The 67-year-old doctor-turned-politician, who founded the French charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is famous for developing the theory of "humanitarian intervention". This argument justifies international action against dictators who flout human rights.

Kouchner famously broke with the French mainstream by refusing to condemn the US-led invasion to topple Iraqi president Sadam Hussein.

"He is going to make Darfur one of his priorities," said a senior French diplomat. "He is going to want to give a lot of himself (and) will doubtless call for more pressure to be applied on the Sudanese government."

Africa’s bloodiest conflict, the four-year civil war in Darfur has claimed some 200,000 lives and displaced two million people, according to UN figures. Sudan says that only 9,000 have died.

Despite the heavy death toll, the Sudanese government remains opposed to the deployment of a robust UN peacekeeping force to prop up the embattled African Union contingent on the ground.

During the French presidential campaign, Kouchner attacked Sudanese President Omar el-Beshir for "blocking any form of efficient humanitarian aid", and took part in a meeting to draw the conflict to the candidates’ attention.

Sarkozy has also called for "urgent" action in the Sudanese region, warning that Khartoum would be made to face international justice for its actions.

"Will the doctrine of humanitarian intervention find its first expression in Darfur?" asked Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). And if so, "with whose troops?"

For Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), there is little hope that Kouchner will engineer a breakthrough on Sudan.

"Even if Bernard Kouchner supports action in Darfur, I don’t expect us to start delivering arms to the Sudanese opposition."

For the French diplomat, in the short term, Kouchner was more likely to have an impact in coming negotiations on the final status of Kosovo.

Kouchner served as the UN’s High Representative in Kosovo from 1999 to 2001 following the NATO bombing campaign to drive out Serb troops.

"He knows all the players perfectly, he can talk to all sides and play a real role in that sense," the diplomat added.

On broader foreign policy, while Kouchner was expected to usher in a new diplomatic style, "the whole question is whether the change will go beyond style alone."

The Socialist Party, which has said Kouchner would be expelled for joining the right-wing government, has sneered at his appointment, saying Sarkozy will keep key parts of foreign policy for himself.

Sarkozy has notably announced the creation of a new national security council bringing together defence and intelligence chiefs around the figure of the president — which could overlap with the duties of the foreign ministry.

"The foreign ministry is going to lose a large part of its power. More than ever the Elysee will decide on major moves," said Boniface.

"We will see a different style, but I don’t think we will move very far from the fundamentals of foreign policy" under previous French governments.

"There will certainly be a shift, a change of tone," in French diplomacy, agreed Pierre Hassner, of the Centre for International Study and Research (CERI).

"But the room for manoeuvre is limited and, let’s be realistic, Sarkozy will tone him down a lot."