Anger at French diplomatic corps overhaul as war rages in Ukraine – POLITICO

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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 release last weekend of a decree The announcement of the merger of France’s 800-strong diplomatic corps into a larger pool of senior officials sparked outrage among politicians and normally loyal diplomats. They argue the move is a first step in wiping out the country’s traditional career diplomats — just when they are badly needed because of the war in Ukraine.

For some, the decree is the culmination of Macron’s opposition to a diplomatic corps he sees as elitist and homogeneous. The risk, many say, is France drifting towards a US-inspired model of ambassadors who are political or prestigious appointments close to the president but less able to deal with an increasingly volatile geopolitical situation.

“Being a diplomat is a real job, it requires competence and experience on the ground,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador who has served in China, Britain and Russia. “We could very well expand and diversify recruitment without destroying the diplomatic corps.”

She added that the decree risks politically recruiting ambassadors, who then delegate their work to MPs who don’t necessarily know how to represent their president in a foreign country.

The decree states that France will phase out the current status of career diplomats and merge them into a single civil service Status created in the past year under which they can expect to work across departments during their career. Several diplomats say so It is unclear how the new status will affect the mechanics of appointing diplomats.

Until now, French ambassadors have been career diplomats, often joining the Foreign Ministry after graduating from the elite school for civil service, the National School of Administration (ENA), or by passing competitive examinations that led them to a career exclusively in the French foreign service.

“With the reform, we will create a more concentrated, diversified center of officials, with perhaps an agricultural expert who can become an ambassador,” a government official said.

The decree is part of a broader plan launched when Macron took office in 2017 to make the French civil service less elitist and more socially diverse. This included closing down the highly selective ENA, which had been training the country’s ruling class since 1945, and replacing it with a new Institute of Public Service (ISP).

Prime Minister Jean Castex wrote an op ed published in Le Figaro last year that the French civil service needs to be “modernized,” citing “a growing divide” between elite civil servants pursuing their careers in Paris-based ministries and the rest of the country.

Macron vs. diplomats

But diplomats and politicians warn that the decree threatens to undermine France’s diplomatic model – and one of the world’s largest networks – and comes at a time of heightened diplomatic tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The door is now open for American-style nominations” tweeted Gérard Araud, former French Ambassador to the United States, regarding nominations for political or financial reasons.

Former US President Donald Trump, for example, appointed Gordon Sondland, an American businessman and Republican Party donor, as ambassador to the EU, a move that raised eyebrows in Brussels.

The right-wing extremist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was quick to join criticize the decree. “He [Macron] wants to replace state officials with friends,” she tweeted, adding that if elected on Sunday — in the second round of the presidential election — she would “reestablish diplomatic status based on merit and national interest.”

Diplomats also pointed to Macron’s strained relationship with them, recalling his 2019 warning of the risk of the French diplomatic corps becoming a “deep state.” Diplomats say they interpreted the president’s criticism at the time as aimed at those who previously disagreed with him and wanted closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Macron’s approach to diplomats was grossly inadequate,” said a senior French diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak publicly to the media. “France is not Turkey and there is no deep state in French diplomacy against the Elysée.”

“We are deeply loyal,” added the diplomat.

Enforcing the decree now with war in Ukraine is seen as unfortunate as French diplomats are actively engaged there and Macron’s efforts to be at the forefront of negotiations with Putin means he needs their support.

Etienne de Poncins, the French ambassador to Ukraine, was one of seven European ambassadors who stayed in the country weeks after the Russian invasion. “There are diplomats in Ukraine where bombs are falling…” said the senior French diplomat. “It takes experience, it takes fieldwork, and let’s not forget foreign language skills… [diplomats] become specialists over time and due to the variety of situations.”

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pledged to ease tensions and reassure diplomats that their expertise will not be sidelined and that the ministry’s competitive exam for diplomats with particular expertise in a language or field will be retained.

“It is clear that diplomacy remains a specific profession in which to make a career,” Le Drian added in an interview with French weekly Journal du Dimanche. Anger at French diplomatic corps overhaul as war rages in Ukraine - POLITICO

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