By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron rebuffed accusations of cronyism on Thursday after an author close to him landed a top diplomatic post in the United States, just weeks after coveted foreign ministry posts were opened up to non-diplomats.
The appointment of Philippe Besson as Consul General in Los Angeles has raised eyebrows because he has written a book lauding Macron during the 2017 election campaign and has no particular background as a diplomat.
“There is no cronyism,” Macron told reporters at a news conference in Finland.
“I want and will continue to open up all positions of responsibility within the civil service, in particular the top echelons, to people of talent and merit coming from other horizons and even more than what has been done up to now,” he said.
Besson, 51, has written about 20 novels, some of them adapted for the big screen and theatre. He was among a number of aides and celebrities Macron invited to a Left Bank brasserie the night after his first round triumph last year.
France has diplomatic bases across the United States, including Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles – where the consulate website says it focuses on building links with the film, music and other creative industries.
Unlike the United States, where the president can make appointments in key foreign service positions, nominations in France are made after a procedural process at the ministry open to thousands of diplomats in France and overseas.
However, a decree at the start of August modified the nomination rules for senior positions, including some 20 consul general postings, that are particularly sought after by career diplomats.
Under the new regulations, those positions can now also be filled by the government and given to people outside the civil service.
That change and Besson’s subsequent appointment has caused some unease among a number of diplomats, and foreign ministry unions have questioned the rationale behind the decision, two diplomats said.
“It is better to sing the praises of the president than to qualify from ENA or speak languages. Old World?” Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria and now Senior Fellow at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne think tank said on Twitter, referring to France’s elite administrative school ENA.
Diplomats have already seen their numbers fall after government spending cuts in recent years making competition tougher each year to move to new positions.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the ministry would need to cut 10 percent of its payroll by 2022, representing savings of about 100 million euros.
(Reporting by John Irish and Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Heavens)