A frank exchange of views: French diplomats on rare strike

AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File
A usher looks through the key hole at the French foreign ministry in Paris, Friday March 4, 2016 during international ministerial discussions about Syria. Members of the French diplomatic corps, a mostly invisible force that guides the nation’s conduct of international affairs, are dropping their traditional reserve to go on strike Thursday, angered by a planned reform they fear will hurt their careers and France’s standing in the world.

PARIS (AP) — Members of the French diplomatic corps are dropping their traditional reserve to go on a rare strike Thursday, angered by a planned reform they worry will hurt their careers and France’s standing in the world.

Some ambassadors and numerous diplomats, in posts ranging from Tokyo to the Middle East and Washington, have said they would honor 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.

The action, announced by Macron in an April decree, will reportedly affect about 800 diplomats. Opponents claim that’s 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.”

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 modernize 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 specialization 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 program, and while France holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. Newly-appointed Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has not commented.

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 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, labeled 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. The group commentary in Le Monde deplored “decades of marginalization of the ministry’s role within the (French) state” as well as “a vertiginous reduction” in personnel — down by 30% in 10 years, the diplomats claim. Funding, they said, is but 0.7% 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 counselor at the French Embassy in Tokyo, tweeted that he would be among the strikers “because diplomacy is not a gala dinner where are all you have to do is put your feet under the table.”