Diplomats protest near the French Foreign Ministry, on June 2, 2022 in Paris. Image Credit: AFP

PARIS:  French diplomats launched a one-day strike Thursday to protest a plan to strip foreign ministry envoys of their special status, a move they say will weaken Paris’s influence abroad.

It is only the second time in its history that the institution staged an open revolt over a government project.

The diplomats say the move to remove their special status will weaken French diplomatic influence by making posts available to all senior civil servants and not just those specifically trained for the foreign service.

“The reform says that agents are, in a way, interchangeable,” Olivier Da Silva, a diplomat and union chief, told AFP.

“And that basically, if you meet a few conditions, you could go from a position at the agriculture, education or interior ministry to a position at the foreign ministry.”

Political interference?

The decree that calls for the corps’ “extinction” was unveiled in April by President Emmanuel Macron, who wants to create a single pool of elite “state administrators” capable of working throughout the public sector.

That means France’s roughly 700 most senior diplomats could be asked to join other ministries, and face competition from non-diplomats for postings.

Critics say Macron is seeking a freer rein to name ambassadors after his unsuccessful attempt to install a friend, the writer Philippe Besson, in a prime post as consul general in Los Angeles.

That decree sparked an outcry in the corps before being nullified in 2019 by the State Council, France’s top administrative law court.

The government says the reform will attract more diverse candidates to the diplomatic service by opening new routes to the foreign ministry, but critics see a danger of political interference.

“The door is now open to American-style nominations,” a former ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, tweeted last month.

American ambassadors are named by the president, who often uses the power to reward political allies and donors with plum foreign postings.

The last and only strike by French diplomats was in 2003 to push for pay increases.

‘Worries are real’

France has the third-biggest foreign service in the world after China and the United States, with around 14,000 employees at the foreign ministry in total.

The vast majority are non-diplomats or people on local contracts abroad.

But most also complain of years of budget and staff cuts even as their workloads have soared with the Covid-19 pandemic and growing geopolitical tensions, not least between the West and China and Russia.

“We say that one is not born a diplomat, that one is not born a consular official, but that it takes experience, as it does for other professions,” Da Silva said.

“This reform, by denying this distinction, risks weakening the French diplomatic tool.”

The strike will be a challenge for Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, a career diplomat appointed by Macron in a cabinet shake-up just two weeks ago.

Her appointment was interpreted by many as a signal of Macron’s willingness to engage with the corps, but she has not commented publicly on the strike so far.

“The worries are genuine, and the staff are exhausted” and currently under intense pressure, a source close to the matter said, asking to remain anonymous.