French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner reportedly handed in his letter of resignation last month to President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying his relationship with the French leader has deteriorated in recent months and that he expects to be leaving the government soon, according to an interview with Kouchner by the French radio station RTL.
The reporter, Remi Sulmont, who conducted the interview told Turtle Bay that Kouchner appears to have already been sidelined from the country's most serious foreign policy crisis of the day: the Sept. 15 kidnapping of five French nationals and two African colleagues at a French-run uranium mine in Niger. An al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility.
Sulmont traveled to Haiti with Kouchner over the weekend, where the top French diplomat was visiting camps for Haitians displaced by the January earthquake. On Sunday, as Kouchner surveyed the relief effort in Haiti, a senior advisor to the president in Paris informed an AFP reporter that it would seek to negotiate for the captives' release with al Qaeda in Maghreb, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden's Islamist terror organization.
Several hours later, Sulmont put the question to Kouchner. "When I asked to him if France was ready to negotiate with al Qaeda in Magreb he said 'no, we won't,'" Sulmont told Turtle Bay. "He didn't know anything about what the l'Elysee [the French presidency] had said five hours before."
In response to the RTL story, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Kouchner "adamantly denies" the suggestion that he had been sidelined. "Such a representation is not only false, regarding his relations with the president of the republic, but also irresponsible in the current context, when all the state authorities are mobilized to obtain the release of our compatriots who are detained as hostages." The communiqué said Kouchner is routinely briefed on the hostage crisis, and that he, or his chief of staff, participates in meetings of France's defense and national security council, where the hostage crisis is managed.
The communiqué was silent on Kouchner's future. Kouchner confided to the reporter that his relations with Sarkozy had been bad over the last three months, a period that coincides with Sarkozy's expulsion and deportation of Roma from illegal settlements in France. In the radio interview, Kouchner said, "I already gave my letter of resignation to Sarkozy last August." He added: "I know, I know I'm going to leave."
Asked to comment on his remarks, Kouchner hinted to reporters at the United Nations, where he had just delivered France's address to the U.N. General Assembly, that his remarks had been recorded while he was speaking off the record. "Do not believe what I say off the record, or else prove it to me," he said.
Editor's note: Turtle Bay was incorrect in reporting that Kouchner had been recorded by Sulmont saying that he had submitted a letter of resignation to Sarkozy. According to Sulmont, Kouchner made the remarks to him during an informal, unrecorded conversation. Kouchner has not denied the accuracy of the remarks.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.