Frustrated French diplomats strike over Macron's foreign service overhaul

A usher looks through the key hole at the French foreign ministry in Paris, Friday March 4, 2016
A usher looks through the key hole at the French foreign ministry in Paris, Friday March 4, 2016 Copyright Jacques Brinon/AP Photo
By Joshua Askew with AP & Reuters
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French diplomats have gone on strike Thursday, angered by a planned reform of the country's foreign service by President Macron.

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Members of the French diplomatic corps have gone on strike Thursday over a planned reform to the country's foreign service.

Ambassadors and numerous diplomats, in posts ranging from Tokyo to the Middle East and Washington, have joined the day-long industrial action. 

They are angry at President Emmanuel Macron's plan to merge career diplomats with a larger body of civil servants, which diplomats believe will hurt their careers and France's standing in the world. 

“We risk the disappearance of our professional diplomacy,” some 500 diplomats wrote in Le Monde newspaper last week. “Today, [diplomatic] agents ... are convinced it is the very existence of the ministry that is now being put into question.”

This is the first time the French diplomatic corps has gone on strike in 20 years.

The industrial action won the support of 500 foreign ministry civil servants in Le Monde's opinion piece and has seen widespread backing from senior diplomats and ambassadors on social media.

"On Thursday, June 2, I will strike. We sometimes work in the evening, on weekends, with children, at one o'clock, at six o'clock," tweeted Boris Caps, a counsellor at the French embassy in Australia, posting a photograph of himself working with a baby on his lap. 

Announced by Macron in an April decree, the reform process will begin in July and reportedly affect about 800 diplomats.

It is intended 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.

If implemented, diplomats will be pooled from all branches of public service, encouraging switches to other ministries and forcing personnel to compete with outsiders for prized diplomatic posts.

Diplomats argue their jobs require specialisation and expertise acquired over years in posts around the world, and cannot be done by outsiders. 

One European diplomat told Reuters the changes were sending a poor message overseas because they appeared to be downgrading the foreign ministry's role, potentially harming long-term relations and expertise.

"It’s like having a sports journalist analysing weather patterns," they said.

Half a dozen other French diplomats Reuters spoke to said the reform was merely the culmination of years of malaise that have seen staffing fall some 20 per cent since 2007 and repeated budget cuts just as the demands on the service have increased. 

Conditions worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, diplomats added.

France has the world's third-largest diplomatic network with some 1,800 diplomats and in total about 13,500 officials working at the foreign ministry.

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