The gradual loss of traditions is fraught with the decline of French diplomacy. It is no coincidence that the reform initiated by Macron has coincided with a series of serious failures in his foreign policy, in particular in relations with African countries, former colonies of France, which is especially painful for Paris, Ambassador Alexander Kuznetsov writes.
It is well known that the history of diplomacy, like the history of art, does not know the concept of linear progress. As Harold Nicholson wrote, the evolution of diplomacy does not entail a continuous transition from rudimentary to perfect methods. On the contrary, he noted, international relations have always been subject to “strange retrogressions.”
The world may be experiencing just such a moment today. According to the updated Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, “the culture of dialogue in the international sphere is degrading, and the effectiveness of diplomacy as a means of peaceful settlement of disputes is decreasing.”
True, in the history of diplomacy, there has been and remains a trend that is more or less stable and progressive. We are talking about the professionalisation of diplomatic activity. This process took place over the course of several centuries, but on the whole it proceeded steadily; as states developed, their external relations expanded, and international relations in general became more complex. Its main manifestations were the specialisation and separation of diplomacy from other types of public service. Along with this, the training of diplomats acquired a systematic character. They were people who not only had the appropriate education, but were also ready to devote their entire lives to this type of activity in order to gain professional experience over many years of service, sufficient to carry out the most complex and responsible assignments. There is no need to prove that this approach is more in demand than ever amid the conditions of modern international relations.
But it turns out that “strange retrogressions” occur here as well. Moreover, with a hint of historical irony, they take place not just anywhere, but in France, a country that was one of the first to create a professional diplomatic service and for several centuries was in this sense a model for the whole of Europe.
On April 16, 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron signed a decree according to which, from January 1, 2023, two categories of senior ranks of the French diplomatic service, the so-called corps of plenipotentiary envoys and advisers on foreign affairs, were abolished. At the same time, other specialized categories of civil servants, for example, the corps of prefects, are also being eliminated. All of them will now be lumped into a single “corps of state administrators,” which will number about 6,000 people. In practice, this means that now a diplomat with the rank of minister-counsellor can become a prefect of a department, and the prefect can apply for the post of ambassador in some country.
The authorities justify the expediency of such innovations by citing the need to give the state apparatus a more flexible, open, manageable and less caste-based character. In relation to the diplomatic service, the task is to facilitate access to it for a “wider profile” of civil servants. The reform also provides for a number of reservations and exceptions. In particular, it does not affect junior diplomats and does not require the mandatory transfer of senior staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to serve in other departments. The so-called “Eastern Competition” — a system of examinations for entry into the diplomatic service of persons with knowledge of rare languages — also remains intact.
However, the “politically correct” arguments in favour of modernizing this service, in the spirit of the neoliberal ideology dominant in France, have turned out to be unconvincing for a significant part of the country’s political and expert circles. Leaders of the opposition parties Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have criticized the reform. Many senators and deputies have spoken out against it, dissatisfied with the fact that a decision on such an important issue was made without discussion and agreement in parliament. A special working group was created in the Senate, which, after a thorough analysis of the possible consequences of the reform, recommended suspending its implementation.
The main opponents of the innovations were the French diplomats themselves. A protest strike by employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs occurred on June 2, 2022 — the second in the history of the Quai d’Orsay.
Ambassadors and staff of French embassies in a number of countries also took part in it.
The most extensive criticism was made in the speeches of prominent retired diplomats. They include Gérard Araud, who until recently held the posts of Ambassador to the United States and UN Representative, as well as foreign policy adviser to President Chirac, ambassador to Tokyo, London, Berlin and Beijing. Maurice Gourdault-Montagne also touched on this topic in his recently published memoirs.
Both diplomats justify their opposition to the reform based on generally accepted “classical” ideas about the essence of the diplomatic profession. The thing is that, in their opinion, the current head of the French state either does not understand them or ignores them. Summarizing the specific objections to his initiative, we can reduce them to the following main theses.
First. The idea of interchangeability of senior officials of various departments, which underlies the reform, is completely untenable.
It fundamentally contradicts the imperative of specialization in various branches of the public service, especially the diplomatic service, which requires a long period of acquiring professional experience.
Second. The reform is based on the false premise that expanding the circle of people vying for high diplomatic posts will naturally allow them to be filled by the best candidates. The fact is, of the approximately 160 French embassies, 120 are in “risky” countries with difficult living conditions. Therefore, it is easy to assume that candidates from among high-ranking officials of other departments will apply for diplomatic positions in the most comfortable and prestigious countries.
This, third, means that the French authorities risk, on the one hand, opening the door to nepotism in the appointment of ambassadors, and on the other hand, significantly limiting the opportunities for those who initially devoted themselves to diplomacy to reach the top of their professional careers. Currently up to ten or more candidates are nominated for the competition to fill some diplomatic vacancies; if the reform is implemented, their number may increase to several dozen. Gourdeau-Montagne said this would demotivate career diplomats and France would lose many dedicated professionals.
All this taken together leads critics of the reform to the conclusion that if it is implemented, France could lose its professional diplomatic service as well as the struggle for influence in today’s world of fierce rivalry and competition. This prospect is especially painful for those Quai d’Orsay professionals who are still committed to the DeGaullian tradition of preserving their own face and France’s active role in world affairs.
The gradual loss of this tradition is fraught with the decline of French diplomacy. It is no coincidence that the reform initiated by Macron has coincided with a series of serious failures in his foreign policy, in particular in relations with African countries, former colonies of France, which is especially painful for Paris. Now, this may be compounded by the decline of the diplomatic service itself, whose organization has been considered one of its greatest strengths for centuries.