French diplomats are on strike today. But will anyone notice?
Not to be immodest, I am especially well qualified to comment on French diplomacy. Some time ago, between gigs in Washington DC, I was employed as a consultant by the French embassy there. The embassy is a modern building in Georgetown, conveniently near all the best restaurants, although the food at the embassy itself was both fabulous and cheaper than McDonalds. The wine list was, obviously, exceptional.
I was not allowed to see deeply into the embassy’s most sensitive operations (there was a mysterious wing that seemed to be entirely occupied by spooks) but must admit that in the scientific service where I worked as an astonishingly well-paid editor, there was very little sign of stress. The only discernible excitement was on Tuesdays, when there was a scramble by my colleagues to get in their orders for wine and unpasteurised cheese, flown into Dulles airport weekly in sealed diplomatic containers on an Armée de l’Air Airbus. On Friday morning, we all assembled on the loading dock as the containers were emptied, to pick up our shopping.
So the life of a French diplomat is rather peachy. Anyone might think that with the housing allowances, generous pay, immunity from ever being sacked and talent for deflecting blame onto others, it’s not a bad job.
But that’s an opinion not shared by the diplomats, who are enraged that President Macron sees them as a ‘deep state’ sabotaging his will. He wants to strip them of their privileges and open foreign service positions to all.
Perhaps the President has a point. French diplomacy is not especially decisive in world affairs, and its failures are dramatic. France’s embassy in Canberra failed to notice when Australia prepared to throw in its lot with the Americans and British in the new Aukus partnership, ditching the French. Macron was infuriated. French diplomacy has contributed to embarrassing failures in the Sahel, Venezuela and Egypt and has dragged modern-era Anglo-French relations to an unprecedented low. A frustrated Macron has subsequently developed his own line in diplomacy, without much apparent recourse to his smug, bloated diplomatic service.
One senior diplomat has admitted that French diplomacy service has achieved almost nothing since the 2015 Cop climate agreement in Paris, even though it has is the world's third-largest diplomatic network, with some 1,800 diplomats and 13,500 more at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris.
Few doubt that the brigade of diplomats could be ruthlessly cut. It seems to have passed unnoticed in the hallowed corridors of foreign relations that the entire notion of embassies, with their grand buildings, elaborate protocols and pompous, self-regarding functionaries, dates from the days before it became possible for governments to communicate by Zoom and email.
The French diplomatic service is hardly unique. The British embassy in Paris employs 300 people. The question that Macron has dared to ask is: what do they all do? Once upon a time it was said that diplomats were sent abroad to lie for their countries. Today, more frequently, they tweet.
According to some, the strike comes at a bad time for Macron, with France holding the EU presidency until the end of June. It’s extremely hard to imagine that anyone will notice, to be frank. Macron has sought to play a leading role in the bloc's response to the attempted invasion of Ukraine and is looking for fresh impetus to his new presidential mandate. His success is thus far undetectable but he’s hardly needed diplomats to achieve nothing. He’s just picked up the phone and called Putin himself.
Half a dozen diplomats that Reuters spoke to said Macron’s 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 supposedly increased. Conditions have worsened during the pandemic, diplomats claimed, as if they have been singularly affected.
Macron's appointment of the career diplomat Catherine Colonna as foreign minister was supposedly an effort to appease the diplomatic corps. It’s not working. Colonna, the former ambassador to the UK, was not an especially popular figure in London where she tweeted aggressively against Brexit and infuriated Whitehall, although she did establish close relations with Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister. She’s now foreign minister and it’s been made clear that she must do exactly as she’s told.
The exemplar of French diplomacy is the recently retired ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, who has rushed to defend his colleagues, warning of an ‘Americanisation’ of French diplomacy that would give Macron greater discretion to choose ambassadors on a personal whim from all ranks of French public life.
‘Diplomats will serve as ambassadors to Burundi’, he said. ‘Rome or London will be reserved for friends’.
But the president can already name anybody he wants as an ambassador. Araud was parachuted into Washington by former president François Hollande. His diplomacy was marked mainly by his addiction to Twitter, where he promiscuously blocked criticism of his constant undiplomatic remarks aimed at his hosts.
On the night of the election of Donald Trump as president, Araud tweeted: ‘It is the end of an era, the era of neoliberalism. We don't yet know what will succeed it.’ He inserted himself into the 2017 French presidential election campaign, he would not work for Marine Le Pen, even if she were democratically elected. Before leaving his post in Washington, Araud described the city as being full of provincial early-bird dinners wearing sad, baggy suits.
Was it really necessary for French taxpayers to install Arnaud and his husband in the grand ambassador’s vast residence in Northwest Washington to know this? If this is the standard of diplomacy practiced by France, Macron will do well to bring it to heel.