French diplomats around the world went on strike on Thursday for the first time in 20 years to protest against reforms launched by president Emmanuel Macron that will abolish their special status and merge them into the rest of the senior civil service.
From Beijing to Paris, strikers posted photos and messages under the Twitter hashtag #diplo2metier (diplomat by profession) protesting that theirs was a specialised job requiring language skills and experience that could not be simply swapped for another government post. “My baker is not my butcher,” said Jérôme Douaud, a diplomat.
“I don’t know anyone who is against the strike,” one former senior French diplomat told the Financial Times. “They are all in favour, the senior diplomats and others, and even employees on contract who complain about the lack of financial resources.”
Dominique de Villepin, former prime minister and foreign minister and exponent of France’s refusal to join George W Bush’s disastrous Iraq war two decades ago, said the suppression of the diplomatic corps would diminish French influence around the world.
“Without this diplomatic corps, there would have been no opposition to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, and no Paris climate accords in 2015,” he said. “For France, this means a loss of independence, a loss of skills and a loss of historical memory that will all weigh heavily in the years ahead as the world is reshaped — and just as there are major crises in Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Sahel.”
Since the days of Charles de Gaulle, French presidents have typically taken control of major foreign policy initiatives, leaving domestic issues to the prime minister and allowing the Quai d’Orsay, the foreign ministry headquarters on the left bank of the Seine, to handle minor crises and the day to day running of foreign affairs.
Macron has been particularly active in international diplomacy, especially in Europe, and before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine he complained about “the deep state” in the form of French foreign ministry resistance to his attempts to court Putin and bring Russia back into the European fold.
Macron’s reform of the senior civil service, portrayed as a move against elitism, is seen by diplomats as a step too far. They say the abolition of the two historic corps for about 800 ambassadors and councillors — out of 13,500 ministry employees — will mean that a civil servant from the agriculture ministry could be appointed as number two in an embassy and end up as chargé d’affaires in the absence of the ambassador, without having any diplomatic training.
“It’s presented as breaking up silos,” said the former diplomat. “But it’s part of a bigger movement of presidentialisation. Macron doesn’t want to be constrained . . . So we are moving towards less neutrality of the state, and more politicisation.”
The strikers are demanding a public hearing to address their grievances over the reforms and repeated budget and staff cuts, and want guarantees that they will be able to pursue careers as diplomats without being summarily transferred to other departments.
Macron’s appointment last month of Catherine Colonna, a career diplomat who was most recently ambassador in London, as foreign minister in his new government is seen at the Quai d’Orsay as a wise choice that may help to soothe the angry diplomats.
“We need each and every one of you,” she told them at the Quai when she took over. “You can count on me never to forget who I am or where I come from — and I come from this place.”