French Diplomats to Strike Over Macron’s Foreign Service Overhaul

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PARIS — When France, land of Talleyrand and the general strike, decides to abolish the heart of its diplomatic corps at a time of war in Europe, it is perhaps only natural that its diplomats should respond with fierce indignation.

Irked by a decree quietly promulgated in the government’s Official Journal between the two rounds of the presidential election in April, seven labor unions representing the country’s diplomats have called a strike this week in protest at the “brutal suppression of the diplomatic corps.”

The strike on June 2 would be only the second in the history of Quai d’Orsay — the Paris location of the foreign service that is the shorthand for the institution. It reflects the dismay sweeping through diplomatic ranks.

The change pushed by President Emmanuel Macron would disband the two-century-old corps of senior career diplomats to merge about 800 of them into a “state administrative corps” made up of high-level public servants, who would then be interchangeably picked to serve as, for example, ambassador to Moscow or a director in the Ministry of Solidarity and Health.

This is not precisely what diplomats who spent years studying a difficult language like Russian or Chinese had in mind for themselves. “To be a diplomat is a vocation, a choice of a very particular life,” said Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States. “Hence the revolt.”

Mr. Araud also noted, “Mr. Macron is a man who does not want to be limited. He does not particularly like rules.”

When in 2019 Mr. Macron embarked on his contested policy of rapprochement with President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, he accused diplomats of undermining his efforts, now undone by Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Mr. Araud said some diplomats saw the suppression of the diplomatic corps as a form of punishment or demotion. They detect in it a reflection of Mr. Macron’s view of a “deep state” blocking his attempts to replace tired French ways with bold initiatives like his outreach to Moscow and, more generally, with a culture of creative disruption. His style of rule during his first five-year term was top-down and personal.

Mr. Macron, now at the start of his second term, has said that he is determined to break up what he sees as cabals of elitism within the French administration — despite the fact that he himself is the product of the elite French school par excellence, the former École Nationale d’Administration, now rebranded as part of the president’s overhaul.

With the reelection of Emmanuel Macron, French voters favored his promise of stability  over the temptation of an extremist lurch.

Mr. Macron committed to opening up the clubby world of the overwhelmingly white and predominantly male mandarins who run France after the eruption of the Yellow Vest protest movement in late 2018. The protests highlighted the disconnect between urban elites and overlooked communities in the rural hinterland or underserved projects surrounding big cities.

“This decision will permit nominations motivated by indulging people rather than favoring competence and will lead to the destruction of careers, a loss of expertise and a vocational crisis,” a group of 500 employees of the Foreign Affairs Ministry wrote in an article published last week in the daily newspaper Le Monde. “We are risking the disappearance of our professional diplomats.”

The government argues that the change will lead to greater competence by dispensing with entrenched traditions and an attachment to status, while also giving diplomats more varied opportunities that bring them closer to the reality of French life.

Jean Castex, the former prime minister, said in April that one of the main aims of the change was to “open up” the diplomatic corps and “ensure there is more diversity.”

Mr. Araud, who has retired, said that his chief fear was of an “Americanization” of French diplomacy, in that the change would give Mr. Macron greater discretion to choose ambassadors on a personal whim from all ranks of French public life.

“Diplomats will serve as ambassadors to Burundi,” he said. “Rome or London will be reserved for friends.”

While this does not precisely mirror the practice in the United States of reserving top ambassadorial posts for big donors, the effect would be much the same, Mr. Araud contended.

The government, dismissing the idea that cronyism lies behind the change, says the issue is adaptability and openness. “At the Quai you may want to go to the Ministry of Agriculture for a while, and then return,” Amélie de Montchalin, the former minister of public transformation, told the daily Le Parisien.

That is, however, a dubious proposition. The sub-prefecture of some remote French region may not be the dream of a polished polyglot envoy.

Under Article 13 of the Constitution, the president can already name anybody he chooses as an ambassador. François Mitterrand named a physician and small-town mayor as ambassador to the Seychelles. But in practice, ambassadors have emerged up to now from the diplomatic corps.

The organizers of the strike said they hoped it would lead to a broad consultation permitting everyone at the ministry to express their concerns. “These measures dismantling our diplomatic service are nonsense at time when war has returned in Europe,” they said in the statement announcing the strike.

“A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,’ and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat,” Charles Maurice de Talleyrand‐Périgord, the legendary French diplomat and survivor of regimes from the revolutionary to the regal, once said.

In this case, however, French diplomats, proud of their heritage, seem to have opted for a resounding, “Non.”

Aurelien Breeden and Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.