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Postmodern Politician

Editor's Note: Paul Berman, who wrote this week's cover story on Tariq Ramadan and the compatibility of Islamism and Western values, wrote his last cover story about Joschka Fischer, which later became Power and the Idealists. That book has just come out in paperback with a new foreword by Richard Holbrooke (who compares Berman to the great historian Edmund Wilson), and its hero is Bernard Kouchner, the French antitotalitarian leftist (and founder of Doctors without Borders) whom President Nicolas Sarkozy just appointed as foreign minister. In fact, Berman's account is, as yet, the most complete biography of Kouchner written in English. Today, we continue with the second of a five-part serialization of section in Power and the Idealists about Kouchner.

Someone in France in those years could always point to the short-run calamities, and make a pretty convincing claim that conditions were, all in all, wretched, and the nineteen-fifties and sixties were merely a continuation of the horrors of the nineteen-thirties and forties. But in the long run, this wasn't true. And so, the young militants in the sundry revolutionary tendencies chanted the chants and meanwhile noticed that, compared to the adults, they were leading lives of bourgeois privilege. The left-wing elders delivered finger-wagging lectures on how grateful the young people ought to be. These lectures demoralized an entire generation. And the young leftists ended up feeling, in stabs of painful self-accusation, a keen sense of their own unworthiness--a tortured recognition that the grown-ups were heroes, and the young people were fakes. This was an unbearable recognition to make--unbearable to some people, anyway.

Young Kouchner, following in the paternal path, enrolled in medical school, and at the same time, enlisted in the Communist Student Union. He flourished. He wrote literary criticism for the Communist student magazine, Clarté. His first essay was an appreciation of Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger--a slightly subversive topic for a Communist magazine, given that France's Communists tended not to love America's culture. Kouchner became renowned for his stentorian singing voice. The Communist Student Union loved those old songs. And yet, the more lustily the students sang, the worse they felt--every stanza a dazzling new demonstration that some people, the adults, were magnificent, and other people, the students, were not. Régis Debray was one of Kouchner's friends in the Communist Student Union, and, in later years, Debray described these feelings with a sharper acuity than anyone else. The Glorious Thirty was glory's defeat, Debray observed. The militants who had fought in Spain or in the Resistance were the Series A generation. The militants of their own generation, his and Kouchner's, had to recognize that, by contrast, they were strictly Series B. They were the generation of the second rate--the less-than-Malraux, less-than-Camus generation. The students were résistants who had nothing to resist. They pretended to resist, even so, and pretending merely aggravated their self-doubts. They dreamed, therefore. They went to the movies.

At the end of 1958, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and a handful of comrades overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Havana. No one knew, at first, what the Cuban revolutionaries intended to do, once they had come to power. But, the months went by, and Fidel and his comrades slid visibly to the left, in a Soviet direction. A substantial number of Cubans fled the country. And, at the beginning of 1961, a group of those disgruntled exiles, right-wingers for the most part, together with an occasional left-wing anti-Communist, staged a military invasion at the Bay of Pigs, backed by the United States, with the hope of setting off a general insurrection. Fidel and his government fended off the invasion without much difficulty. Even so, this was a scary moment for the Cuban Revolution. And, in these circumstances, a tremendous excitement went bubbling through the zones of the student left in many parts of the world and especially in Paris. The reason for this excitement might not seem obvious. Cuba was far away, and the disputes between Cuba's revolutionary leaders and Cuba's exiles and the American government might have seemed of no special concern to young people hanging out in the cafes around the Sorbonne--a parochial quarrel of the Western hemisphere, without universal implications.

But the students, some of them, did see a universal implication. The fighting at the Bay of Pigs seemed to them a new outbreak of an older war, and this was easy to identify. It was the Spanish Civil War, the war of revolutionaries versus fascists, suddenly bursting into renewed flame in the far-away Antilles. A good many republican veterans from Spain had taken refuge in the Soviet Union after Franco's victory, and, by 1961, a number of those exiled republicans were already showing up in Havana to renew the struggle, literally singing songs from the Spanish war. The Soviet leaders in Moscow gave Havana their support, just as, in the thirties, they had supported the Spanish Communists. The scenes of solidarity in faraway Cuba offered a living proof that, in spite of every conventional belief, the days of the International Brigades and the French Resistance were not, in fact, at an end, and the past was the present, and the lyricism of long-ago was the lyricism of today. Or perhaps today's lyricism was superior to yesterday's. The young people in Kouchner's wing of the Communist Student Union gazed at the adults of their own party with awe, but they did rather wish that France's Communists would give up on the old Stalinist orthodoxies. The young people wanted a fresher, more appealing, more modern Communism--something less refrigerated, more human. Italian Communism seemed to them fairly appealing, all in all, but, then again, Cuban Communism, even more so. A warm tropical breeze appeared to be wafting outward from the socialist Antilles. Some people liked to imagine so, anyway.

In France, no one was more outraged by the invasion at the Bay of Pigs than Kouchner and Debray, and the two of them marched off to the Cuban embassy on the Avenue Foch in Paris and, in the spirit of the International Brigades, volunteered to fight in Cuba. The attachés at the embassy responded diplomatically. "We are noting your request . . ." This meant no. Even so, these two young militants from the Communist Student Union had already made the crucial generational discovery--the discovery that, in later years, untold numbers of other people would likewise make, in a thousand versions. It was the discovery that history was not yet at an end. The Series B generation did not have to remain Series B. Both of those young men, Kouchner and Debray, took this discovery pretty seriously, too, and each of them fashioned his own response, and put a lot of creativity into that response--and the consequences for everyone else, for many thousands or millions of people around the world, turned out to be, in both cases, pretty big.

Debray refused to be discouraged by the embassy attachés, and he made his way to New York, hitchhiked to Miami, and crossed the strait to Cuba, even without an official invitation. He enlisted in the campaign to teach literacy to the Cuban masses in the countryside. He toiled in this campaign for two months, spent another few months in Cuba, and then another year and a half touring Latin America. This was more than an adventure in student vagabonding. In Venezuela, Debray hooked up with the Marxist guerrillas, who were trying to overthrow the Venezuelan government (which, at the time, happened to be at least nominally social democratic--but this did not faze the Marxist revolutionaries). The Venezuelan guerrillas, in Debray's phrase, were a maquis--the word that used to apply to the Resistance in France. He wandered into other countries, and wrote up these experiences, and his essays demonstrated quite a lot of skill, for a young man.

Everything that was lacking in the political culture of the student movement in the United States in the nineteen-sixties--an easy familiarity with the history and doctrines of the revolutionary left--seemed to be at Debray's fingertips: the history of August Blanqui and the French revolutionary conspirators of the nineteenth century; the doings of the Paris Commune and sundry uprisings across the continent; the collected resolutions of the first six congresses of the Communist International; the history of the Shanghai commune of 1927 and the Canton commune of 1928; the battle plans of the Spanish Civil War. Then again, Debray's education was entirely modern, too. At the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Althusser, the Communist philosopher, drew his motto from Lenin, "Marxism is all-powerful because it is true"--a motto of sheer fanatical delirium. Under this motto, Althusser in his seminar concocted a marvelously peculiar revolutionary doctrine, superscientific and faintly Catholic at the same, closer to anthropology than to anything Marx might have recognized. These teachings, as well, shaped Debray's imagination--Althusser's lesson that Marxism could be rendered flexible and creative and up-to-date.

Sartre published one of Debray's essays in Les temps modernes in 1965. Che Guevara visited Algeria that year, and a copy of the magazine fell into his hands. Che was in Algeria to work out the details of a complicated bit of hugger-mugger, according to which Cuba was going to export sugar to Algeria; the Algerians were going to re-export Cuba's sugar to Communist China; the Chinese were going to respond by shipping to Algeria weapons from the United States that had been found in Korea, during the Korean War; the Algerians were going to forward the American weapons to Cuba; and the Cubans were going to hide the weapons in containers of olive oil and smuggle them across the Caribbean to the Marxist guerrillas in Venezuela. In this manner, the Venezuelan guerrillas could arm themselves, without risking the difficulties that might fall upon their heads if Soviet weapons were discovered in their hands. (Debray has told the story of this deal in his political memoir, Loués soient nos seigneurs, or Praised Be Our Lords). Such were the undercover trade relations among the vanguard nations of the Third World revolution. And, as Che labored over these intricate arrangements, he glanced at Sartre's magazine and discovered Debray's essay. Debray was only twenty-four years old, but, soon enough, he found himself invited back to Cuba, this time as the guest of Fidel himself--housed in luxury at the grandest of Havana hotels, freed of every money concern, ushered about from one extravagant event to the next.

Many years later, after he had given up his Communist beliefs, Debray worked as a foreign policy adviser to President Mitterrand, and this meant that, in his memoir, he was able to compare Fidel to Mitterrand, one head of state to another; and the comparison was telling. A normal leader goes home in the evening and enjoys a private life. Mitterrand was a normal leader (doubly so: he had two families). But Fidel, in Debray's recollection, had abolished private life. Fidel was a monomaniac of his own revolution. He was a latifundista, ruling his island nation like his own hacienda, attending to the tiniest details. Here was a premodern politician. He was a condottiero from out of the Middle Ages, with a strictly medieval sense of himself--an autocrat who, like all true autocrats, never laughed in public, or even in private. Fidel was the champion of the spoken word, instead of the written word, and in this way, he stood in the tradition of the European fascists, and not of the Communists. Debray recalled a visit to Cuba by Alberto Moravia, the Italian novelist. Moravia listened spellbound to Fidel's orations, and concluded that attending a mass rally in Havana afforded the pleasures of Communism and of fascism at the same time--the satisfaction of applauding for Communism's social goals, while savoring the extravagances of fascist oratory, Mussolini-style. But Debray, in those days, looked on Fidel and on Cuban Communism with no such feeling of irony.

Debray went through military training in Cuba. On the firing range one day, he was instructed by Fidel in person. Fidel pointed out the virtues of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, the AK-47. "Today with the AK-47, three men have the same fire power as a company at the start of the century," Fidel said. "This means that three men can begin a war!" Fidel's whole purpose in inviting Debray to Cuba was to convince Professor Althusser's brilliant young disciple to work up this simple insight into a grand revolutionary theory--into essays that could stand next to the pamphlets of Lenin, or could even surpass Lenin and advance the revolutionary project into the age of Latin American socialism and Third World insurgency. Debray duly produced his Revolution in the Revolution?--the very title of which signified an intention to go beyond Lenin and make a revolution in the revolution, and yet, to do so with the humble tentativeness of a question mark. Debray accepted Mao's notion that peasants, and not just workers, could make a revolution. He threw in Fidel's insight about AK-47s. And, adding a few other salts and spices, he came up with the military-revolutionary theory that was conventionally known as Guevarism, though it was Fidel's theory, too.

Debray explained that an absurdly tiny number of guerrilla fighters, a microarmy, could penetrate into a jungle somewhere and set up a base for themselves, which, in the language of Che and Fidel, was called a foco. And, having established the foco, the microarmy could launch a revolutionary war. The guerrilla fighters did not have to wait until social conditions were propitious. They could create their own social conditions. They did not have to rely upon the support of a Marxist political party. The guerrillas themselves could establish themselves as the nucleus of a new kind of political party, whose heart and soul would be military, instead of political. They could win support among the campesinos by treading a cautious and somewhat ambiguous path--by avoiding too much contact with the campesinos, and by holding meetings in remote villages only at the point of a gun, so that, if the forces of repression swept down upon the village, the campesinos could honestly claim to have been the victims, and not the supporters, of the guerrillas. In this fashion, the tiny guerrilla army could draw support partly by terrorizing the campesinos, and partly by articulating their grievances, and slowly transform itself into a mass party-army, more rural than urban, more peasant than proletarian, more military than political. And such a party-army could seize state power, eventually.

Fidel dispatched his finest officers and comrades into the jungles of Latin America and Africa to organize their microarmies and begin the revolution along these lines; and, of those resolute people, Che was the first of the first. Che tried repeatedly, in the Congo, in Argentina, and in Bolivia, to establish his focus and launch the war. He never got anywhere at all. The Bolivians and the CIA finally tracked him down and killed him. And yet, for all of Che's failures, something in the Guevarist idea proved to be well-adapted to Latin America. The campesinos in quite a few regions inhabited (and still inhabit) a political culture so primitive and so isolated from the rest of society that utter strangers could, in fact, arrive from nowhere, and proclaim their doctrines, no matter how arcane or bizarre, and attract followers through an ambiguous mixture of persuasion and coercion, and launch a war. This has happened repeatedly in modern Latin American history.

The only problem with this strategy was that, if Guevarist militants armed with automatic weapons could penetrate into the jungle and start a guerrilla war, so could anyone else, given that success or failure had very little to do with the ultimate goals and intentions of the campaign. In Peru, a Maoist philosophy professor led the Shining Path, whose ideas were infinitely more brutal than anything that Che or Fidel had ever contemplated; and Shining Path became an enormous force, for a while, radiating madness at every moment. The Marxist militants of Colombia, without any backing from Fidel, achieved even greater successes, apparently without much of a well-developed program at all, and with the support of relatively few intellectuals. In the Mexican tropics, still another professor of philosophy, Subcomandante Marcos, launched his much more gentle guerrilla movement in the name of postmodernist doctrines of several sorts, which evolved over time unto such matters as transgender liberation; and Marcos, too, enjoyed success, for a while. Then again, large numbers of people launched guerrilla wars in the name of anti-Marxism and anti-leftism, too, and these people, the right-wingers, likewise discovered the satisfactions of automatic weapons, with the final result that, for every left-wing guerrilla in Latin America, there was a right-wing guerrilla. Right-wing triumphs canceled out left-wing triumphs, and lasting revolutionary victories proved to be impossible to achieve, or at least to sustain, except in Cuba. But this logical conundrum in Guevarist guerrilla theory was not obvious at first.

Debray ferried secret messages between Che and Fidel. In Bolivia, he also carried a gun, and took part in an ambush and scouted out terrain, though he pretended to be a journalist. When Che was finally tracked down and killed, in 1967, Debray was arrested, and was lined up against a basement wall, with six rifles pointed at him from ten paces. He ended up serving a sentence in a Bolivian jail. And yet, as he stewed in prison, his intellectual influence blossomed very quickly into something huge, all over the world. Fidel constructed a cult of Che the hero and martyr, and succeeded in spreading this cult to all points. And Debray's Revolution in the Revolution? stood at the heart of the revolutionary cult, or rather, at its brain--the Marxist doctrine that gave meaning to those dashing photographs of Che and the posters and the wall slogans. Fidel published Revolution in the Revolution? in an edition of three hundred thousand copies--and that was merely the Cuban edition.

Four years later, when Debray was freed, he discovered that he had become a world figure--not quite a symbol, the way Che in death had become a symbol, but, even so, a revolutionary theoretician whose every word was taken as holy writ by militants of the armed left or would-be armed left almost everywhere in Latin America and in many other places, Europe included. Debray went from his Bolivian jail to Chile, to be received in triumph by the Socialist president, Salvador Allende. And then, at last, Debray, the hero, returned to France--to the France that had meanwhile gone through May and June 1968. Revolution was on everyone's lips, and Che's image on every wall, in some neighborhoods. Debray should have cried out in joy at these developments. But Debray was a flesh-and-blood man and not merely a theory-generating machine, and four years in prison had changed his outlook, and when he returned home, he found that he was seriously out of step with everyone else. Almost everything about the post-'68 left-wing agitation in Europe struck him as slightly amiss. He thought that young people were making a big mistake with their cult of Che. The iconic photos of Che showed a sweet-looking man, but Debray thought the photos were misleading. Che in life was a hard, not a soft. The posters of Che seemed to symbolize, in the minds of the left-wing students, a spirit of rebellious freedom--the anti-authoritarianism of 1968. But Debray knew very well that Che was not a champion of rebellious freedom.

In Debray's definition, Che was "a partisan of hardcore authoritarianism." Debray knew that Che, and not Fidel, introduced the forced-labor camps into Cuba, back in 1960, at the start of the revolution. It was Che who militarized everyday work in Cuba with his vocabulary of "brigades," "contingents," and "battles." Che, too, was a man who never laughed--fully the master of himself, metaphysically possessed by his own ideas. As for the student uprisings in Europe, why, Debray could hardly take those events seriously. Professor Althusser had always been an enemy of left-wing "spontaneism," and the '68 uprisings were spontaneism run amok, and Debray remained Althusser's faithful student. Besides, everything that Debray knew from the left-wing past told him that, in any genuine revolutionary upheaval, blood must be spilled; and in Europe in 1968, this had not happened, except in a small way. He was struck by what he called, in a mordant phrase, "the absence of human sacrifice." The uprisings seemed to him an "anarchist psychodrama"--an uprising of petit-bourgeois brats, who lacked the courage to pick up guns and make a real revolution. To be sure, any number of enraged leftists in those years tended to agree with this hard-nosed analysis, which was why the new, post-'68 microarmies enjoyed as much support as they did. But Debray was too much the practical man to suppose that anything useful was going to come from European guerrilla movements. The magical properties of the AK-47 were not going to achieve a damn thing in the campesino jungles of Western Europe. Anyway, he was already beginning to entertain new thoughts entirely.

These new ideas had come to him during his prison years--the period in which, as he later wrote, he "became free," intellectually speaking. He took a long time to gather the courage to express the new ideas--a full twenty years, in the case of his judgment about Che. Still, he finally blurted out his honest beliefs. Debray believed that Che went into the Bolivian jungle for purposes other than victory. Debray believed that Che's truest intention was to lose. To be killed. Che's spiritual battle against the world and against himself required his own death. This was Debray's terrible secret--the truth that he had slowly recognized and had even more slowly decided to reveal. Then again, Debray began to suspect that Che was not alone in this suicidal desire. Maybe the larger desire for revolution in the modern world, Debray began to think, will someday appear to be an episode in the history of the desire for death. Maybe revolution and suicide had somehow drawn close to one another. The vast popularity of the cult of Che in so many places around the world took on a slightly creepy look, from this point of view.

But Debray was thinking of many more people than Dr. Guevara. He thought about President Allende in Chile, who killed himself with an AK-47 in the course of General Pinochet's coup, in 1973, and about Allende's daughter, Beatriz, who killed herself three years later, in Cuba. He thought about Professor Althusser in Paris, who committed a kind of suicide by murdering his wife in 1980--a period in which, as Debray noted, quite a few French Marxists committed suicide. Debray never bothered to glance across the Rhine at his own comrades in Germany--a characteristic omission, on the part of a French intellectual. But it's obvious what he would have seen, if only he had bothered to look. For what was the history of the German revolutionary movement in the nineteen-seventies, if not a history of people on the verge of suicide, and beyond the verge?--even if no one has ever been able to rule out the possibility of official murders. The prison suicides, if they were suicides, of the Red Army Fraction's leaders, the death of one revolutionary comrade after another, the grisly panache, the riots that broke out in the aftermath of those prison deaths--these things did seem to celebrate a cult of human sacrifice. This was the meaning of Gerhard Richter's paintings.

And if Debray had glanced across the ocean at the United States? In his memoir he nodded in passing at America's Black Panther Party--this same party which had attracted so much admiration on the German left, and all over the world. The Black Panthers' leader was Huey Newton, the Supreme Servant of the People, as he liked to style himself. Huey Newton made his own contribution to the literature of revolutionary theory--his own version of Revolution in the Revolution?, except that Newton's manifesto was called Revolutionary Suicide. There was the suicide of Abbie Hoffman, the author of Revolution for the Hell of It. Suicide was "the apotheosis of the loser," in Debray's phrase, and, in one country after another, these people, the suicides, were the militants who had staked everything on the planetary revolution--the left-wing heroes who, in different ways, had been leaders of the worldwide movement of which Régis Debray had served as a principal theorist. And these people had lost.

Debray in his memoirs gave a few thoughts to the jihadis of the Islamist revolution, too. These people seemed fairly recognizable to him, and this was because the jihadis' love of suicide was not at all an expression of some weird anthropological quirk in Muslim society or a medieval legacy of Islam. Not at all--jihadi suicide was the height of modernity. But Debray's focus was on the Western left, and not on the revolutionary Islamists.

Back in 1961 at the Cuban embassy in Paris, Debray refused to be discouraged, and he pushed onward to Havana. But Kouchner took no for an answer. Kouchner returned to medical school. This was not because he had given up on revolutionary politics. Over the next few years, Kouchner agitated on behalf of the Algerian independence fighters, and he even took a few risks on their behalf and lent the keys to his room to militants from the Algerian underground. Right-wing bombs began to go off in Paris, and Kouchner volunteered to join the left-wing guard protecting Simone de Beauvoir's apartment--a likely target of the right-wing terrorists. Kouchner kept up his passion for revolutionary Cuba, too. In 1964 the Communist Student Union organized an expedition of French students to Cuba, and Kouchner signed up for the trip. He managed to wrangle an interview with Fidel and even got himself photographed together with Fidel, a characteristic feat on Kouchner's part--already notorious, among his friends, for his outsized ambitions and pushy habits. Kouchner positively boasted of these traits. In one of his essays for Clarté, the student magazine, he described himself as Rastignac--the young hero in Balzac's Human Comedy who burns with idealism yet also with desire for worldly success: the left-wing social climber par excellence. "Rastignac in 1963 is a Communist," was Kouchner's defiant, self-promoting phrase.

In Cuba he encountered Che on a couple of occasions. Che was minister of finance, and Kouchner saw him at the ministry, puffing cigars and eying the girls. Kouchner put a question to Che: why not hold elections in Cuba? Che dismissively replied by saying, look, that's what they do in the United States. (Or so Kouchner told me--though in an earlier version of this story, which you can find in Génération by Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, the same exchange took place between Kouchner and Fidel). Che, in any case, seemed less attractive than Fidel--less human. Still, Kouchner remained, on balance, Che's admirer. Kouchner wrote his medical thesis on the nutritional diseases of starving Africans, and he dedicated it to Dr. Ernesto Guevara, the Argentinean man of medicine--one doctor's homage to another.

In the long conversation that Kouchner and Cohn-Bendit published in 2004, When You Become President, the two would-be presidents paused to discuss the 1968 uprisings and what had come out of those events. Cohn-Bendit was aggressively unrepentant. Bakunin and Durruti, the anarchist gods, still excited Cohn-Bendit's enthusiasm. "All revolts are excessive, unjust and sometimes blind," he said. "But finally, what fine times we lived through! What human warmth! What a liberation of speech, of our bodies, of our sexual and intellectual appetites!" Cohn-Bendit was sick and tired of getting blamed for every deplorable social trend that had come to afflict modern society. The Fischer affair of 2001 still weighed on him. He was seething, still, over the absurd accusations. To get smeared, and in such an ugly fashion! For that matter, Cohn-Bendit still shook his head in wonder at Régis Debray for having denounced the '68ers as petit bourgeois brats, back after he had returned from his Bolivian prison. An "anarchist psycho-drama"--ha! Kouchner asked, as a kind of game, what kind of funeral did Cohn-Bendit picture for himself. Cohn-Bendit answered instantly, "The Rolling Stones. I want people to sing 'Satisfaction' at my tomb." He was laughing at himself, to be sure, and yet not entirely. He wanted his ashes scattered on the Boulevard St.-Michel. He wanted to remain in capital-H History ad vitam aeternam as the spirit of May '68.

Kouchner, too, looked back on '68 with a satisfied pride. He took part in the marches and demonstrations, and, afterward, he absorbed those experiences into his picture of himself: a '68er, tried and true. He felt an instinctive fondness for anyone else who, around the world, had played a role in the uprisings--a '68er's warmth for all the other '68ers (except that Kouchner couldn't abide the French Maos). He was proud of having lent his automobile to Cohn-Bendit for the ill-fated trip into Germany. And what were the consequences of those long-ago uprisings, in Kouchner's estimation? Many a good thing--in the field of medical services, for instance. Doctors, in the past, used to occupy a lofty place on the social pyramid, and patients, a lowly place, and these hierarchies had served medicine badly. But the uprisings of 1968 radiated an antipathy for social hierarchies of every kind, and the antipathy swept the world of medicine. In the decades after '68, doctors, as a result, began to look on themselves less arrogantly than before. Doctors began to treat their patients more sensitively. This was progress.

But Kouchner remained a little skeptical on some other outcomes of the uprisings and the countercultural spirit. Maybe his own leftism always retained a few habits and assumptions of a slightly earlier age, pre-'68--a leftism that insisted on being practical, more concerned with measurable consequences, less interested in mere attitudes and styles. The countercultural antipathy for social hierarchies swept across the school system, too, beginning in 1968, and the authority of teachers was weakened. This, in Kouchner's view, had proved to be a disaster, at least in some of the schools--in the immigrant working-class neighborhoods of France, especially. Or so he argued--though Cohn-Bendit insisted on refuting his every claim. Kouchner argued that, because of the counterculture, people had come to look on science with suspicion. Cohn-Bendit, the bike-riding Green, was a friend of alternative medicine, and an enemy of nuclear energy and of genetically altered foods. But Kouchner was a man of science.

Kouchner felt that alternative medical approaches were downright harmful, sometimes, if only because they inhibited people with cancer and other serious diseases from getting themselves examined quickly enough. Kouchner was loath to dismiss nuclear power. He worried about pseudoscience. Maybe Kouchner was more like Debray than anyone might have imagined, and shared a bit of Debray's contempt for the petit-bourgeois brats. Kouchner had never wanted anything to do with the post-'68 impulse to build microarmies in Western Europe, though not because he felt an aversion to extreme risk and self-sacrifice. It was just that, like Debray, he found himself gazing in other directions entirely--away from Europe and its New Left reveries, away from the dreams of a European revolution, and toward the Third World.

[Tomorrow: Kouchner combines his medical degree with humanitarianism to form Doctors Without Borders, and gets tangled in American politics through the Vietnam War.]

By Paul Berman