Sudan: a platform for French grandstanding

France's new foreign minister, the arch-interventionist Bernard Kouchner, is using the crisis in Darfur to try to win France some respect in world affairs.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France in May, he wasted no time in trying to reassert France’s place on the world stage: he appointed Bernard Kouchner, a long-standing proponent of international intervention, as his foreign minister (1). It is starting to become clear what ‘Kouchner-ism’ might mean for the Third World: the new French foreign secretary has recently made it known that the international community, not the African people, should decide the outcome of conflicts in Africa.

Sarkozy says his top foreign policy priority is Sudan. The conflict there between the central government and various rebel tribal groups has been dragging on since 2003. Large numbers of people have been displaced by the fighting and thousands have died (although the number of people killed is a matter of dispute). The conflict is also affecting neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic, due to both the number of refugees crossing the borders from Sudan and the military action executed by rebels and government forces within these neighbouring states.

Last week, Kouchner convened a one-day international conference of the ‘international Darfur crisis outreach group’ in Paris. Those attending included representatives from China, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, the Arab League, and the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. The stated aim of the conference seemed comprehensive. In his welcome address, Kouchner said that all aspects of the conflict, including resolution, would be covered, from the establishment of an African Union peacekeeping force and the restarting of a political process, to the normalisation of relations between Sudan and Chad. ‘To achieve this’, he declared, ‘today’s meeting will provide an indispensable opportunity for speaking, listening and dialogue’ (2). Speaking about the overall aims of the conference, Sarkozy warned: ‘Silence kills…. We want to mobilise the international community to say that’s enough.’ (3) Condoleezza Rice stressed that the international community had not lived up to its responsibilities on Sudan and Darfur (4).

Yet of the current conflicts taking place in Africa, Sudan’s is actually the most high profile. Far from major states and international institutions being silent, the conflict in Sudan has been repeatedly and loudly presented as a clear-cut case of an evil regime persecuting peaceful tribes because of their ethnicity. For example, the conflict was declared to be genocide in 2004 by the US Congress. It has also been adopted as a cause célèbre by film stars such as George Clooney and intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy (5). The media has frequently focused on the conflict, often to the detriment of reporting on other African conflicts and issues.

Moreover, the conflict in Sudan has already been highly internationalised. American and other officials have been intimately involved in negotiating ‘peace deals’. Some commentators have suggested that such international involvement has actually prolonged the conflict. The fact that the war has been widely discussed in simplistic terms of a ‘bad’ government smashing ‘good’ rebel groups has encouraged the rebel groups to refuse to sign up to previous peace deals in the hope that the further moralisation of the conflict will strengthen their hand. At the moment, there are ongoing peace negotiations between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, which are being conducted under the auspices of the African Union. Furthermore, in the last two weeks Sudan has agreed to allow a joint UN-African Union force into the country to replace the beleaguered (and unpaid) 7,000 African Union troops currently acting as peacekeepers. Whatever else might be going on, this conflict is certainly not being ignored.

The most striking thing about the Paris conference was who was not invited. Despite the high-sounding promises to promote ‘listening and dialogue’, the key protagonists in the Sudanese conflict were absent. The Sudanese government itself was not invited, nor any of the rebel groups or anyone from neighbouring Chad. In his opening speech, Kouchner dismissed the need for Sudan’s presence: ‘The aim is not to bring together the actors in the conflict – they meet regularly in other forums – but members of the international community who can bring influence to bear on those actors.’ Sudan had protested beforehand, arguing that the conference would simply distract from the peace negotiations. The African Union, no doubt for similar reasons, declined to attend.

The conclusion of the conference was a statement of support for the current negotiations: ‘A consensus was reached on giving priority to a political solution brokered jointly by the African Union and the UN. The roadmap now has to be implemented, and this requires the effort of everyone: Sudanese authorities and rebel movements, co-mediators, regional actors and the international community as a whole, which will have to take adequate measures, in the framework of the UN Security Council, against those who refuse to negotiate in the conditions of the roadmap.’ (8) Rice warned the Sudanese government not to go back on its commitments (9).

There is nothing new about the major powers or international institutions deciding on the fate of weaker powers without consulting them, nor is there anything new about the internationalisation of internal conflicts. For example, the Cold War allowed some Third World states a brief period of international importance because of the possibility of military backing and funding from either superpower. And through ‘linking’ what were essentially internal disputes with the grand ideological conflict of the Cold War, many minor internal conflicts took on a far greater international significance than they really merited.

But what was the point of a high-profile international conference which was attended by big-hitters in the international community but not the people actually involved on the ground – particularly when the outcome of the conference was merely to support negotiations that are already taking place? It seems this conference was not really about the conflict in Sudan at all; rather, as Kouchner actually admitted, it was about the international community.

The conference was an example of the peculiar nature of much contemporary foreign policy. Today, foreign policy tends to be disconnected both from any national interest or a broader political framework (10). The aim of foreign policy among the big powers today is twofold: to try to establish a sense of moral purpose at home, and to create a framework of meaning through which international relations can be conducted. The content and lack of connection to anything that is actually going on is therefore largely irrelevant; the point of an event like Kouchner’s conference is the gesture itself. This is foreign policy as performance and grand gesture, something which Kouchner has long been a master of (11).

More broadly, the appointment of Kouchner as French foreign minister, and Sarkozy’s promises to keep Sudan at the top of his agenda, reveal that Sarkozy, in this one respect, really has adopted the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model: compensating for a lack of any genuine political programme at home by using the international sphere to grandstand and gain moral authority.

Tara McCormack is a doctoral student researching post-Cold War security theory at the University of Westminster.

Previously on spiked

In 2004, Brendan O’Neill asked why Britain was suddenly so interested in Darfur and criticised the intervention of George Clooney and other Western liberals into the situation. Philip Cunliffe argued that African Union troops were being used as a cover for Western intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) See Is THIS the most dangerous man in Europe?, by Philip Hammond

(2) Welcome address given by the minister, Diplomatie France, 25 June 2007

(3) Darfur tests new French resolve, BBC News, 26 June 2007

(4) ‘Silence kills’, warns Sarkozy on Darfur, Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2007

(5) See Intellectual imperialism, by Philip Cunliffe

(6) See Darfur: damned by pity, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Welcome address given by the minister, Diplomatie France, 25 June 2007

(8) Statement by the spokesman, Diplomatie France, 26 June 2007

(9) Rice keeps pressure on Sudan over Darfur, CBS News, 25 June 2007

(10) See The death of foreign policy by David Chandler, 13 June 2007

(11) See Is THIS the most dangerous man in Europe?, by Philip Hammond

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Topics Politics


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