Diplomacy Without Diplomats? The Disputed Reform of the French Foreign Ministry

In June 2, the diplomats will be on strike for reasons they set out in an article signed by 500 agents, published on May 25 in Le Monde. They are protesting their integration into a new undifferentiated body of senior civil servants, within the National Civil Service Institute. According to them, this measure is the final blow to French diplomacy, as it has already been severely affected by the reduction in resources and the drop in staff. Denouncing the lack of consultation, they call for a review of the Quai d’Orsay. The recent appointment of a diplomat to head the ministry will not be enough to defuse the mobilisation of a profession that does not deny the need for reform but deplores its brutality and fears its repercussions.

The Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (Quai d’Orsay)
Wikimedia Commons

The idea of reforming the senior civil service goes way back and rears its head periodically. The French are very attached to their public service, yet at the same time they have an overall picture of an administration that is ossified and ineffectual. In the run-up to the all-important presidential election in April 2022, President Emmanuel Macron launched an offensive aimed at the very head of the system, i.e. the senior public service. At the end of 2021, he announced the creation of an Institut national du service public (INSP) which has already absorbed the École nationale d’administration (ENA) and which is meant to take over all the major bodies of the State with the exception of the Conseil d’État and the Cour des comptes, i.e. 12,000 civil servants who will henceforth all be known as “administrateurs de l’État”. The ostensible goals are to guarantee a greater diversity of recruits, more flexibility and mobility, increased efficiency and to put an end to corporatism.

The Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs is directly concerned, with its 13,600 employees, including 1,800 diplomats. At the bottom of the scale are the “petites mains”: the 900 foreign affairs secretaries who, to a large extent “keep the shop running”. They will swell the ranks of the future INSP. They are under the orders of the 800 foreign affairs advisors and the hundred or so plenipotentiary ministers, among whom ambassadors are recruited. All of these will be able to complete their careers, but after a last edition of the competitive exam in 2022, these two corps will be terminated and vanish forever.

The system in place at the foreign ministry today offers two ways into the career, if we neglect a few marginal instances of staff members with atypical profiles or seconded personnel from other ministries. Until now, the two “normal” ways of access were either the very selective “concours d’Orient”1 (18 positions of secretary in 2020 and 7 advisors), or a degree from ENA among the top third of graduates (5 positions in 2020). In the first instance, the criteria for selection include language skills and a thorough knowledge of the area of specialisation; the candidates are often Sciences Po graduates, but some are experienced researchers. After a final edition of the advisors’ competition in 2022, which will also be the last chance for secretaries, recruitment procedures will be revised within the new INSP.

A changing institution in a changing world

This drastic reconfiguration is having a seriously unsettling effect on an institution already beset by a mix of various phenomena. Quite recently, the ministry has had to diversify its missions and its know-how. In 1998, it absorbed the Ministry of Cooperation, which became a department named “Direction générale de la mondialisation” (DGM). In 2012, Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, wrested from “Bercy” (the Ministry of Economy) the responsibility for economic diplomacy. The current holder of the portfolio, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has fully endorsed this option, capitalising on his own skills and contacts as former minister of defence to win juicy armaments contracts.

The world has changed as well. Globalisation has modified the international balance of power and rules of the game. China is challenging the USA as number one world power while France is dropping behind. Like many of their compatriots, diplomats may be experiencing a loss of influence, or even a decline of their country and the fear that it can no longer live up to its ambitions. Important players—China and Russia in particular—are challenging the current world order and the frame of reference that has prevailed for decades. At the very heart of the Western alliance, commitments are no longer as dependable as they once were. Not only did troublemaker Donald Trump renege on both the Vienna nuclear agreement with Iran and the Paris climate accord but withdrew from the World Health Organisation (WHO), cut US appropriations to Unesco, to the United Nations Refief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), thus contributing to weaken a UN already in poor shape. The well-mannered Joe Biden did not spare a close ally by snatching up a lucrative Australian submarine deal from the French.

The conflicts are extremely complex and difficult to decipher, involving both a plethora of local actors, often pitted against each other, and an array of foreign interventions, as has been clearly demonstrated by the Syrian and Libyan tragedies. Not to mention the transnational or international crises, such as the waves of migration, terrorism, global warming and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Diplomats have had to adapt, upgrade their knowledge and their techniques of intervention.

Feminisation and diversification

The “maison Quai d’Orsay” as the Ministry is called has also experienced far-reaching in-house transformations, in particular its feminisation. Whereas in 1980 there were only 3 female ambassadors out of 175 and 16 in 2006, they were 51 in 2021 or 30% of the total. Today, with equal qualifications, a woman’s career is on the average five years ahead of a man’s. This sociological mutation has many consequences. In a couple, both partners will want to carry on with their professional lives and generally seek to maintain an equal balance between their private lives and their careers, more often than did the previous generations, just like the rest of our society, A paradoxical situation may arise where young diplomats will refuse an assignment to a difficult area on account of the living conditions there and/or the family break-up imposed by new operational requirements.

Often used to justify the need for reform, corporatism is certainly one of the foibles of the Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, but this is to underestimate the spectacular changes that have taken place over the last few years in staff profiles. The old aristocratic families with their generations of diplomats (often very talented) have been marginalised. It has already been noted that the career is now open to ENA graduates whose training differs from that of recruits who have passed the “Orient” exam. Ethnic diversity has also appeared in the Ministry with the recruitment of young people from immigrant families and who owe their position to merit alone. Though it must be admitted that these are more often of North-African descent than sub-Saharan. Contrary to common belief, the Ministry is one of the most open and diversified administrations (52% of its employees are contractual and 20% of the managerial staff do not come from the diplomatic corps)2.

Moreover, a diplomat stationed abroad collaborates on a day-to-day basis with other players who practise what one might call “indirect diplomacy”: the personnel of the economic mission employed by the Ministry of Finance, the military officers of the Defence Mission, the agents of the Intelligence Service, the researchers of the different Instituts français de recherche à l’étranger (IFRF), the specialists of the Agence française de développement (AFD), the personnel of the services of cultural diplomacy and the Instituts and Alliances françaises, whose profiles may vary greatly: academics, teachers, directors of cultural or artistic venues…

From one crisis to the next

Diplomats have often been disconcerted by the new tasks assigned to them over the past twenty years. These did not correspond to their vision of a profession which they embraced out of interest for a certain part of the world, geopolitics, the negotiation, and management of crises. Besides which, many of them, firmly attached to the democratic values constantly invoked by the French authorities, have a hard time defending the complacent stances taken vis-a-vis authoritarian regimes and dictated by ulterior motives of a commercial or security nature. In short, they are troubled by the contradictions between the rhetoric and the reality.

Above the grand principles, there is the issue of the efficacy of a chosen strategy. Domestic politics—the struggle against unemployment, job preservation, foreign trade figures, and security rhetoric—all take precedence over foreign policy and issues of geopolitical balance. The short term prevails over the long term. To take a concrete example, if we sell some Rafale fighter planes for 81 million dollars apiece, it is just that much money which the purchasing nation will not invest in infrastructures, education, or health, which is bound to generate social-political instability and in the long run have repercussions on the interests of France (influx of migrants, regional crises with the forced return of expatriates, threats to trade). In the name of the war on terror, we support dictatorships which have nothing to offer their populations, whose brutality leads to phenomena of radicalisation, and which are not certain to endure.

Called upon for increasingly varied missions, diplomats bitterly resent their shrinking budgets, the sale of their prestigious buildings, and legation closures—even though France, with its 163 embassies, still possesses the world’s largest network after China and the USA. The Ministry’s budget scarcely represents 1, 03% of the national budget. Over the last thirty years, this administration has lost 53% of its staff, and one third in the last decade. As in most administrations, the personnel spend more and more time managing bureaucratic tasks to the detriment of their core activities.

These grievances do not rule out self-criticism and certain shortcomings are more or less unanimously recognised, such as the competition or inadequate communication between different departments (due in part to the broadening scope of their missions as mentioned above and the resulting duplications), serious problems managing staff resources provided now by diplomats rather than by specialists, the irremovability of staff workers “except a double homicide in the family” and despite new procedures such as the “360°” (whereby underlings evaluate their supervisors), the disparities of dedication between the idleness of some and the very heavy schedules borne by others.

The management of material resources is also subject to criticism. The salaries of those stationed abroad are very high, especially because of the foreign residence indemnities, evaluated according to criteria which are not always objective. With the recent reduction of assignments, some ambassadors find themselves unassigned and are given rather ill-defined missions. In order to exist and justify their salaries (the amount of which the Minister refused to reveal when questioned at a press conference) these dignitaries place orders with departments and legations which cause overload of work that are not always clearly justified. It also occurs that some staff members with no assignment continue being paid to do nothing.

Presidentialisation of the country’s foreign policy

The announcement made in 2021 was taken as an insult by diplomats. Was the polyvalence of the future State administrators not a way of denying the specificity of their profession? Diplomacy implies special skills—knowledge of a country, a region, a language or even dialects—which require long and arduous studies. Learning to negotiate, to decipher signals, forging ties with colleagues encountered from one country to the next or in international organisations, these are skills acquired over the years, in the field. Not everyone wants or is equipped to live abroad. Is there not a risk of losing credibility or influence at a time when the balance of power is shifting on the international scene, if France is to be deprived of its career diplomats? How will agents of the prefectural corps or people specialising in farming issues deal with these stakes under the principle of rotational assignments.

The reform which has just been put in place also enshrines the marginalisation of the ministry and the presidentialisation of foreign affairs. This tendency, already well underway with President Nicolas Sarkozy, has further asserted itself in recent years. But as regards the department dealing with North Africa and the Middle East (ANMO), often described as “pro-Arab”, the malaise goes much further back. In the year 2000, Lionel Jospin, visiting Jerusalem, spoke of “Hezbollah’s terrorist actions” which caused the French Premier to be stoned the next day visiting the West Bank.

This “controlled verbal skid” had created sharp tensions with the Ministry, caught off guard by a vocabulary which differed totally from the “elements of language” defined by ANMO for the visit, in which Hezbollah was a political actor duly elected to the Lebanese parliament and which had to be considered as such.

More recently, the Libyan dossier has been the object of serious divergences: the French presidency has come out in support of General Khalifa Haftar, a friend of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, in conflict with the Tripoli government backed by the international community, and this in opposition to the opinion of the Foreign Ministry diplomats. Nor are the points of view on the situation in Syria always attuned. And it is well known that incumbent President Macron takes a dim view of the diplomatic corps.

Finally, the political appointments of intellectuals have been very badly received, whether they are writers like Jean-Christophe Ruffin (ambassador for Senegal and Gambia) or Philippe Besson (considered at one time for the Los Angeles consulate) or Olivier Poivre d’Arvor (ambassador in Tunisia). Are not the new rules going to multiply these “compensatory” appointments, especially when the idea is to find new jobs for former cabinet advisors?

Under closer scrutiny, the reform nonetheless does involve some elements worthy of approval, such as the obligation for future State administrators to follow a course of in-service training and lend themselves to re-evaluation in the course of their career. But certain details remain obscure, such as the new assignment procedure. Will there still be a corps of diplomats within the INSP? Will the Orient competition be maintained at the insistence of the current Minister Le Drian as certain rumours would have it? The executive prefers to begin the reform at the top, with the best paid and the least unionised members of the staff in order to point to their example for the benefit of the lower echelons. This would be the first stage of a rocket named “the thinning of the public sector”. But most diplomats feel that things are going too fast and without prior concertation. The foreign affairs secretaries, particularly the youngest, see their career plan brutally reduced to nothing. A parallel could be drawn with the announcement by Premier Edouard Philippe of a tuition increase for foreign students right smack in the middle of the “Study in France” education fair in November 2018. After which it had been necessary to deal with the students’ panic, explain the workings of a reform about which those who were meant to apply it had no information.

In the one case, the idea was to kick the anthill, put an end to a situation which was ossified and costly even if some mistakes would have to be corrected later on; in the other, it would have been preferable to repair the machine without running the risk of destroying it altogether.

1As its name does not indicate, the “concours d’Orient” is a competition covering a vast geographical zone, from Africa, sub-Saharan region included, to the Far East, by way of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Southern Asia.

2La Tribune, 8 November 2021