PARIS: French diplomats staged a one-day strike on Thursday to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to strip foreign envoys of their separate status, a move they say will weaken Paris’ influence in the foreign.
France has the third foreign service in the world after China and the United States.
And it is only the second time in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the institution, which appreciates discretion and compromise, has organized an open revolt against a government project.
The decree calling for the “extinction” of the diplomatic corps was unveiled in April by Macron, who wants to create a unique pool of elite “state administrators” who can move smoothly throughout the public sector.
The diplomats say the removal of their special status fails to recognize their experience and expertise in defending French interests, making the posts accessible to all senior civil servants and not just those specifically trained for the foreign service.
“The reform says that the agents are, in a way, interchangeable,” Olivier Da Silva, a diplomat and union leader, told AFP.
“And that basically, if you meet a few conditions, you could move from a position in the Ministry of Agriculture, Education or Interior to a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the ornate Quai d’Orsay headquarters of the Foreign Office on the bank of the Seine, one with a sign in English reading: “There can be no long-term diplomacy with short-term diplomats”.
“You don’t become a diplomat overnight,” said Marcel Escure, a 35-year-old veteran and one of the few to give his name at the protest.
The reform means France’s roughly 700 top diplomats could be invited to join other ministries and face competition from non-diplomats for key posts.
But critics say Macron has an ulterior motive – a freer rein to appoint ambassadors after his failed attempt to install a friend, writer Philippe Besson, in a privileged post as consul general in Los Angeles.
This attempt sparked an outcry in the body before being canceled in 2019 by the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court.
The government says the reform will attract more diverse candidates to the diplomatic service by opening new paths to the foreign office, but opponents see a danger of political interference.
“The door is now open to American-style appointments,” former ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, tweeted last month.
US ambassadors are appointed by the president, who often uses power to reward political allies and donors with overseas postings.
“Without a diplomatic corps, it will be much easier for the government to appoint friends at all levels of diplomatic posts,” Aurélie Bonal, France’s deputy ambassador to Washington, said on Twitter.
“After the Second World War, the administration was rebuilt precisely to avoid this. Our diplomacy needs competence, continuity and expertise, not cronyism,” she wrote.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs employs around 14,000 people in total, although most are non-diplomats or people on local contract abroad.
But the body also complains of years of budget and staff cuts even as its workload has soared with the Covid-19 pandemic and growing geopolitical tensions, including between the West and China and the Russia.
“They say that you are not born a diplomat, that you are not born a consular official, but that you need experience, as is the case with other professions,” Da Silva said.
“This reform, by denying this distinction, risks weakening the French diplomatic tool.”
The strike will be a challenge for Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, a career diplomat appointed by Macron during a cabinet reshuffle just two weeks ago.
Her arrival was interpreted by many as a signal of Macron’s willingness to engage with the body, but she has not publicly commented on the strike so far.
“The concerns are real, and staff are exhausted” and currently under intense pressure, said a source familiar with the matter, asking to remain anonymous.