What future for French diplomacy?

“This reform is hasty and harmful”

Xavier Driencourt

former ambassador

In the wake of the yellow vests, the president wanted to sacrifice the senior civil service, by making disappear with a stroke of the pen what has been the backbone of the state since Philippe le Bel. That the decree suppressing the corps of diplomats be published on Sunday April 17, between the two rounds of the presidential election, shows the strong political will to make this undebated decision irreversible. I note that among the great sovereign missions of the State, only the diplomatic corps has been axed. The military and judicial bodies remain untouched and retain their special status. Thus young administrators from the new National Institute of Public Service (ex-ENA) will have to pass an exam after two years to join the Council of State or the Court of Auditors.

However, France is one of the major permanent member countries of the UN Security Council. She needs professional diplomacy. However, it is at a time when the international situation is very complicated – wherever we look on the planet, in the Sahel, in Ukraine, in Asia, etc. – that we are going to deprive ourselves of a body that has proven itself. This reform is unnecessary, hasty and harmful.

The presidentialization which has been growing for several years, the verticality of power, would like to replace diplomatic expertise. The caricature of diplomacy is to believe that it is limited to a tweet or a phone call. Now, precisely, diplomacy is not the snapshot, but hindsight. We do not improvise ambassador! This function, one exercises it after twenty or thirty years of profession. It consists of understanding, analyzing, deciphering and trying to anticipate. The ambassador in Ukraine has been posted in Poland before, he speaks Russian, he knows the region. These skills cannot be improvised. There have always been specialization courses at the Quai d’Orsay, whether in China, Europe, the Middle East, politico-military affairs, the UN and multilaterals, etc. . By forming a single body of state administrators, we will become the only diplomacy in the world that will lose these skills. We will measure the consequences of this loss of expertise in several years.

The Head of State is the head of diplomacy. He appoints whom he sees fit as ambassador or consul general. All presidents since de Gaulle have, in turn, used this discretionary power to appoint people outside the diplomatic field. In view of this reform, this exception risks becoming the rule. Since diplomatic posts are open to everyone, mechanically this is no longer an exception. Added to the loss of expertise is the fear of political cronyism, that these appointments serve to reward such MP, such councilor or such minister defeated in an election.

Collected by Marie Verdier


What future for French diplomacy?

Maintain a diplomatic channel to attract the best

Christian Lequesne

Professor at Sciences Po (1)

There are special competitions for recruiting professional diplomats in all democracies, with rare exceptions such as India. In this country, candidates take an exam to become a state administrator and then choose to go to a particular administration or to the Indian Foreign Office. From this point of view, there is no French specificity. At most, we can say that our system has certain characteristics, such as the highly centralized organization of an administration overlooked by the Elysée, in accordance with the spirit of the Vand Republic.

It is still very difficult to say what impact the reform which merges the main major state bodies, including that of the foreign affairs advisers, will have. The executive has initiated this policy as well as the transformation of the ENA – now the National Institute of Public Service (INSP) – to introduce more mobility into career paths. Today most of the recruitment is done through internal competitions which allow people employed in embassies to become diplomats. Foreign affairs advisers are, for their part, recruited through the ENA competition (only 4 or 5 per year choose this route) or the Quai d’Orsay competition for executives from the Orient. It enables it to select eminent specialists, who notably master a rare language.

This reform will require the implementation of a very subtle human resources policy, because diplomacy calls for specific qualities and skills, starting with knowledge of foreign languages. There are also more practical specificities, such as living isolated, in a distant country, with the consequences that this can have on family life. To attract the best talent, it is also essential to maintain a diplomatic channel in the senior civil service. Otherwise, who will want to pass the internal competitions of the Quai d’Orsay if he risks landing in any administration? Without guarantees, diplomacy will no longer be attractive.

This does not prevent looking for variety in the profiles. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius had thus called on senior officials from Bercy to develop economic diplomacy. Let us add, finally, that France appoints ambassadors who are not all professionals. These more political appointments represent approximately 10% of positions compared to 30% in the United States where the practice is more widespread. But that assumes that these ambassadors can rely on excellent diplomatic professionals.

Collected by Bernard Gorce


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