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PARIS — In the final days of the French presidential election, it was perhaps the last-minute controversy that President Emmanuel Macron would have liked to avoid.
The publication last weekend of a decree news of the merger of France’s 800-strong diplomatic corps into a single larger pool of senior officials sparked outrage from politicians and generally loyal diplomats. They argue the move is a first step towards eliminating the country’s traditional career diplomats – just when they are urgently needed with the war in Ukraine.
For some, the decree is the culmination of Macron’s distrust of a diplomatic corps he considers elitist and homogeneous. The risk, according to many, is to see France drifting towards a model inspired by the United States of ambassadors who are political or prestigious figures close to the president, but who are less able to manage an increasingly volatile geopolitical situation. .
“Being a diplomat is a real job, it involves skill and experience in the field,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador who served in China, the United Kingdom and Russia. “We could very well expand recruitment and diversify it without destroying the diplomatic corps.”
She added that the decree risks seeing the political recruitment of ambassadors who then delegate their work to MPs who do not necessarily know how to represent their president in a foreign country.
The decree indicates that France will gradually abolish the current status of career diplomats, merging it into a single civil service status which was created last year, and under which they can expect to work in different departments during their career. Several diplomats said it is unclear how the new statute will affect the mechanisms for appointing diplomats.
Until now, French ambassadors have been career diplomats who often joined the foreign ministry after graduating from the elite civil service school, the École nationale d’administration (ENA), or passing competitions that propelled them towards a career exclusively in the French foreign service.
“With the reform, we will create a more concentrated and diverse core of civil servants, with perhaps an agricultural expert who can become an ambassador,” said a government official.
The decree is part of a broader plan launched when Macron took office in 2017 to make the French civil service less elite and more socially diverse. It also included the closure of the highly selective ENA, which has trained the country’s ruling class since 1945, and its replacement with a new Civil Service Institute (ISP).
Prime Minister Jean Castex wrote in an editorial published in Le Figaro last year that the French civil service needed to be “modernised”, citing “a growing gap” between elite civil servants making careers in Paris-based ministries and the rest of the country.
Macron against diplomats
But diplomats and politicians warn that the decree risks undermining France’s diplomatic model – and one of the largest networks in the world – and comes at a time of heightened diplomatic tensions with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The door is now open for American-style nominations”, tweeted Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States, referring to appointments made for political or financial reasons.
Former US President Donald Trump, for example, appointed Gordon Sondland, an American businessman and Republican Party donor, ambassador to the EU, a move that raised eyebrows in Brussels.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was quick to criticize Decree. “He [Macron] wants to replace civil servants with friends,” she tweeted, adding that if elected on Sunday – in the second round of the presidential election – she would “restore diplomatic status based on merit and national interest” .
Diplomats also pointed to Macron’s strained relations with them, recalling his 2019 warning about the risk of the French diplomatic corps becoming a “deep state”. Diplomats say they interpreted the president’s criticism at the time as directed at those who previously disagreed with him and who sought to strengthen ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Macron’s approach to diplomats has been totally inadequate,” said a senior French diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly to the media. “France is not Turkey and there is no deep state against the Elysée in French diplomacy.”
“We are deeply loyal,” added the diplomat.
Passing the decree at this time, with the war in Ukraine, is considered unfortunate because French diplomats are actively engaged in it and Macron’s efforts to be on the front line of negotiations with Putin mean he needs their support..
Etienne de Poncins, the French ambassador to Ukraine, was one of seven European ambassadors who remained in the country weeks after the Russian invasion. “There are diplomats in Ukraine where bombs are falling…”, declared the senior French diplomat. “It takes experience, it takes field work, and let’s not forget the knowledge of foreign languages… [diplomats] become specialists over time and because of the diversity of situations.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pledged to ease tensions and reassure diplomats that their expertise would not be set aside and that ministry support for diplomats with particular expertise in a language or domain would be maintained.
“It is clear that diplomacy remains a specific profession in which one can develop a career,” added Le Drian in an interview with the French weekly Journal du Dimanche.