In Emmanuel Macron’s France, Even Diplomats Are Striking Against Cuts

Emmanuel Macron has used the war in Ukraine to boost his credentials as a global statesman. Yet last week’s strike by the diplomatic corps shows how his neoliberal recipes have gutted the French state.

The reform of the Foreign Ministry is part of a broader rift between segments of the upper-level civil service and Emmanuel Macron’s government. (Antoine Gyori / Corbis via Getty Images)

The demonstration in Paris on June 2 bore all the usual trappings of a French workers’ action, with a union rep donning the red mesh jersey of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and cardboard signs calling to defend public services. But the mobilization, one of the first of Emmanuel Macron’s second term, came from a surprising source: France’s diplomatic corps. On the grassy esplanade between the Invalides Military Museum and the diplomatic administration’s palatial Quai d’Orsay headquarters — at the heart of a neighborhood teeming with foreign embassies and luxury apartments — the gathering of several hundred workers from the Foreign Ministry made for an exceptional sight.

The first at the ministry since 2003, the one-day strike on June 2 was a common action between the Parisian headquarters and France’s web of global consulates and embassies — the third largest diplomatic network in the world, after those of the United States and China. According to organizers, nearly a thousand ministerial workers, including both contractual employees and statutory functionaries, participated in the walkout, which also was joined by at least thirty consular-generals and ambassadors.

The diplomats are protesting a series of changes to the French upper civil service, part of a broader reform kicked off in Macron’s first term through legislation drafted in 2019. This law has provoked protests and strike movements elsewhere in the French state (as in last spring’s strike by municipal workers). This new movement, relayed on Twitter by the slogan #diplo2métier, opposes the abolition of the specific statutory status held by French diplomats, who are set to be merged into a common pool of officials in the upper civil service. This will pave the way, the striking diplomats fear, for the “interchangeability” of functionaries across ministries and state services.

“Diplomacy is a real profession,” says Olivier da Silva, spokesperson for the interunion alliance and former ambassador to Cape Verde, with over thirty years’ experience in the diplomatic corps.

It’s not something that you can do every once in a while. What the reform says is, You will go work in other ministries, without knowing if you’ll return to foreign affairs. There’s a feeling of dispossession. That doesn’t mean this profession belongs to us. Someone is not born a diplomat, or a consul — you become it by way of experiences and recruitment.

One of the government’s arguments for this reform is the desire to break down the barriers that are said to divide other ministries from the Quai d’Orsay — shorthand, in French political speak, for the foreign office. “We’re not hostile to other administrations, or to officials that come from other ministries,” retorts one diplomat who spoke to Jacobin on condition of anonymity, recounting working at the French Embassy in India alongside the diverse attachés of other administrations. “I don’t want to become the agricultural attaché, and she wouldn’t want to take my job either. We need them to do their work, just as they need us to do ours.”

But it’s not only a question of upset careers for these officials, who are likewise dumbfounded by the project of unwinding a professional diplomatic service at a time of profound global instability. “We’re worried about the increasing fragility of our diplomatic offering,” Da Silva told Jacobin. “Just at the moment when there’s again war in Europe, when there are crises just about everywhere, and great powers, and their appetites, are back — amid a redrawing of globalization! Not only is this not the right time to be dealing with this, but it’s perhaps the worst!”

Long-Term Cuts

These are the immediate causes of the June 2 strike, but the movement has come to crystalize lingering discontent over a decades-long cutback on resources and funding allocated to Quai d’Orsay. “This social movement,” reads the ministry’s interunion communiqué, released on the strike day, “is the result of a deep malaise shared by our agents of all categories and statutes resulting from the succession of reforms, the massive reduction of human and financial resources, the inequalities of treatment between people who work the same jobs and the risks weighing on our professional status resulting from the end of the diplomatic corps.”

In the last ten years, the ministry has lost some 30 percent of its employees, as diplomats at the June 2 rally compared the reduced resources and staff numbers with those at the disposal of other foreign delegations. The dwindling of embassy and consular staffs has also been accompanied by an increasing reliance on short-term contractual workers, who were also mobilized on June 2, even though the specific reform will largely target some eight hundred ministry officials with the higher functionary status.

The diplomats are calling for a ministerial convention to discuss the broader problems facing the foreign office and come to some sort of mutual agreement about the application of the civil service reform. This “last straw on the camel’s back” in a long line of grievances risks clouding the arrival into power of the new minister of foreign affairs, the career diplomat Catherine Colonna, who has agreed to meet with movement representatives on June 7. Colonna’s predecessor, Jean-Yves Le Drian, voiced guarded criticism over the reform’s application to the diplomatic corps.

Beyond a suspension of the application of the reform package, these negotiations need to be the occasion for an unfiltered dialogue on ministerial priorities, according to CGT union representative Alain Maestroni. “Where are we going? What type of diplomacy should France have in the world? What means and resources are we willing to devote to it?”

A Public Service

The Quai d’Orsay no doubt has its specificities. But in contrast to the rarefied image of the Foreign Ministry, and clichés about it being a preserve for aristocrats, the striking diplomats place their mobilization within the broader context of retreating public services. “It’s true that the problems driving this are specific to the foreign affairs ministry,” says Maestroni, but

the notion of public service is central. The ministry does not just do diplomacy. It’s also a public service given to the 2 million French people who live abroad, where we provide all the services that a city hall or a prefecture provides back in France: passport processing, civil registry, the delivery of social aid and academic scholarships, assistance to French citizens in danger, sanitary evacuation.

The reform of the Quai d’Orsay is part of a broader rift between segments of the upper-level civil service and Macron’s government. While there is as yet limited contact with these other pockets of discontent, there is a common weariness over the president’s desire to redraw hierarchies, protocols, and career tracks within the French state. In April 2021, for example, Macron’s government announced the closing of the famed École Nationale d’Administration, which was replaced this past January with the new Institute of Public Service, homogenizing the training received across the upper civil service. On June 2, the current graduating class of the school also went on strike.

The French president has long been fond of what he calls “disruption.” But there’s a genuine confusion shared by these diplomats as to the logic of this reform. Macron has criticized the supposed “corporatism” or “administrative castes” at the top of the state, an accusation hurled by the current government against any organized or institutionalized group of workers, suit-clad or not.

But as far as the diplomatic corps is concerned, it’s possible that there might be something else at play: the relative autonomy of the foreign service vis-à-vis the presidency, which already possesses a margin of maneuver in terms of setting France’s foreign policy agenda. In an August 2019 speech before the conference of French ambassadors, the French president evoked his frustrations in 2019 with what he termed a “deep state” holding sway over the Quai D’Orsay, said to have been opposed to his desired strategic reengagement with Russia.

Skirmish or not over the supposed Atlanticism of the foreign office, sources within the ministry say that what’s really driving Macron’s shake-up of the upper civil service is that he sees it as a roadblock to his agenda. They nonetheless fear that this reform will make it easier for a president to place allies within the ministry. It “risks being even worse than the US spoils system,” said one Jacobin source, noting that the political appointees of American presidents are buttressed by an immovable bloc of career diplomats who pass the US foreign service exam. It’s this layer of diplomats that the new reforms are putting into jeopardy, part of what Maestroni recognized as an “Uberization” of the diplomatic corps and the upper-level civil service.

There’s a rupture between the people handling the affairs of state and those setting the priorities. “Economic thinking is erasing the political,” the source suggested. “There’s this idea that everything is just a contract.” Leading a country which often fashions itself as a diplomatic “balancing power” through a global geopolitical crisis, Macron seems to have made himself some new and untimely critics.