French diplomats go on rare strike over planned reform

Hundreds of French foreign ministry staff protest a planned reform that will reportedly affect about 800 diplomats.

french foreign ministry building
European and French flags on the French foreign ministry building in Paris [File: Christophe Petit/EPA]

Members of the French diplomatic corps went on a rare strike on Thursday, angered by a planned reform they worry will hurt their careers and France’s standing in the world.

In posts ranging from Tokyo to the Middle East and Washington, some ambassadors and numerous diplomats have said they would honour the day-long strike.

They want President Emmanuel Macron to scrap a plan to merge career diplomats with a larger body of civil servants, starting in January next year.

The action, announced by Macron in an April decree, will reportedly affect about 800 diplomats. Opponents claim that is just the beginning.

“We risk the disappearance of our professional diplomacy,” a group of 500 diplomats wrote in a commentary published last week in Le Monde newspaper.

“Today, [diplomatic] agents … are convinced it is the very existence of the ministry that is now being put into question,” they said.

First in 20 years

Union leaders said Thursday’s job action is only the second strike by French diplomats in 20 years. A protest is planned near the imposing French foreign ministry complex known as the Quai d’Orsay on the River Seine.

The government reform is meant to modernise and diversify France’s diplomatic corps, which was created in the 16th century, and to bring down the walls of what some in the government see as an elite institution turned in on itself.

It will put diplomats into a large pool from all branches of public service, encouraging switches to other ministries and forcing personnel to compete with outsiders for prized diplomatic posts.

Diplomats contend their job requires specialisation and expertise acquired over years in posts around the world – and has no room for amateurs.

The planned change comes amid the war in Ukraine and complex negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, and while France holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. Newly-appointed Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has not commented.

‘Historic fault’

Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister and foreign minister known for an eloquent 2003 speech at the United Nations in which he declared French opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq, labelled the pending reform in a tweet last month “a historic fault”.

For France, the loss of diplomats’ separate status in the civil service means “a loss of independence, a loss of competence, a loss of memory that will weigh heavily on the years ahead”, Villepin tweeted.

Even before Macron’s decree, anger and frustration had festered in the foreign ministry’s halls over cuts in funding, personnel and outsourcing.

French foreign ministry civil servants demonstrate in 2003.
French foreign ministry civil servants demonstrate in Paris in 2003 [File: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

The group commentary in Le Monde deplored “decades of marginalisation of the ministry’s role within the [French] state” as well as “a vertiginous reduction” in personnel – down by 30 percent in 10 years, the diplomats claim.

Funding, they said, is but 0.7 percent of the state budget.

The Twitter hashtag #diplo2metier shows a number of ambassadors and diplomats around the world joining in or supporting Thursday’s strike.

“I will be on strike … to protest the reform of the diplomatic corps and the continued reduction of means for our diplomacy,” French Ambassador to Kuwait Claire Le Flecher tweeted on her personal account.

Romain Rideau, a counsellor at the French Embassy in Tokyo, tweeted that he would be among the strikers “because diplomacy is not a gala dinner where all you have to do is put your feet under the table”.

Source: News Agencies