More than 500 French diplomats and six professional unions declared a strike on 2 June 2022 to protest their deteriorating working conditions after reforms to the French diplomatic corps were issued by decree in April. A closer look at the French corps suggests that there were various motives behind these protests, rather than a single driver. The protests have diverse implications for France and reflect the scope of the challenges that the ministry of foreign affairs currently faces. The recent escalation of French diplomatic protests and the strike reflect diplomats’ concerns that these reforms could affect their status and privileges and reduce French influence abroad. There is no doubt that the escalation of these protests is exerting pressure on the new French government and could also impact the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The French diplomats’ strike is linked to several main causes, including:
1. Changes to French civil service system: The legal reforms to the diplomatic corps that were implemented in April are expected to produce a new class of high-ranking French administrative professionals who will be involved in drawing up Paris’s foreign policy. This could lead to a reduced role for advisers and ministers plenipotentiary in the ministry of foreign affairs. The number of employees in the ministry is also set to be cut by half over the next thirty years.
Furthermore, high-ranking diplomats will not be given permanent posts in different departments, but rather will be continuously rotated between various departments in the ministry. This is seen as demeaning given the experience that diplomats accumulate in a specific field and as disruptive to their work. These reforms have been the main driver for the strike. Although the changes were implemented in April, diplomats had been closely following the presidential election results and the formation of the new government, which could have prevented the reforms from going into effect.
2. Fears of declining French influence abroad: The reforms stirred up internal discontent within France with regard to the future of the diplomatic corps, but also raised broader questions about France’s role on the international stage. Dominique de Villepin, former prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, expressed concerns about the extent to which these reforms would lead to reduced French power in the face of US hegemony. French diplomats have always played a role in balancing out and countering US influence, as was the case with French opposition to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, or during the Paris Climate Accords of 2015, which were met with serious opposition from Washington. The reforms gave the radical diplomatic current, i.e., those disgruntled with Paris’s tendency to follow along with Washington’s foreign policy, space to express their point of view and helped to drum up support for the strike.
3. Lack of service opportunities abroad: For the past five years, those within the ministry of foreign affairs have increasingly called for financial and administration reforms that would enable the world’s third-largest diplomatic corps (with regard to the number of embassies and consulates) to better achieve its goals. French diplomatic missions have suffered from a lack of resources. This protracted issue has cast a shadow over the current strike. One of the strike’s demands is improving living conditions for French diplomats, which is part of a longer list of demands regarding the expected deterioration of the corps itself. It is true that this is not a direct cause of the strike given that this problem has developed over the course of many years, but it is a shared concern for the vast majority of diplomats participating in the strike directly or through social media.
4. Aggravating international factors: The declining financial resources and fundamental changes expected to take place in the French diplomatic corps cannot be separated from the difficult international conditions in which French diplomats have worked in recent years. This international context, combined with the lack of improvement in their own conditions, has created feelings among diplomats that their sacrifices are not valued.
At the same time, it is worth mentioning the following challenges on the international stage: the spread of COVID-19, the emergence of multiple crises in quick succession, including the withdrawal from Kabul after the Taliban’s victory in August 2021, the Russia-Ukraine war and subsequent expulsion of foreign diplomats by Russia, worsening conditions in Mali, and the diplomatic-military defeat of the AUKUS submarine deal. Many ambassadors have expressed their surprise regarding the cutting of the French diplomatic corps in light of the war in Europe, given the need to expand rather than reduce diplomatic efforts. The obstacles and challenges within the current international order have also contributed to the strike, especially given that diplomats themselves have described the corps as a failed institution within waning influence.
Implications of the Protests
The French diplomats’ protests are considered unusual and have broken many of the rules of traditional politics. This has various implications, including:
1. Solidarity among different professional ranks involved in the strike: The strike has seen unprecedented levels of solidarity among employees of different professional ranks within the ministry of foreign affairs. Many ambassadors and senior regional directors have recently supported the movement on Twitter using the hashtag # Diplo2métier. Meanwhile, other ambassadors have expressed their support from abroad, such as the French ambassador to Kuwait, Claire Le Flecher, and the French ambassador to Oman, Veronique Aulagnon. They pledged to go on strike during the same period that the strike is taking place in Paris. Others, such as Philippe Errera, the director general for political affairs in the ministry of foreign affairs, have retweeted astatementrecently posted by younger diplomats. This solidarity means that the demands have moved beyond the narrow concerns of particular groups to involve the institution as a whole, and could result in a relative stoppage of French diplomatic activity at all levels during the coming period.
2. A difficult task for the new minister of foreign affairs: This strike, the first of its kind in almost 20 years, comes only a few days after the appointment of Catherine Colonna as minister of Europe and foreign affairs, succeeding Jean-Yves Le Drian. She is known for her harsh stances regarding EU integration and her support for a strong regional standing for France. The strike directly challenges the new minister to defend her positions and the privileges of her institution within the new government, and could also be a test of her ability to come head to head with the Élysée Palace and to operate within Parliament if needed.The strike poses a challenge to diplomats working at the executive level as well as to the cohesiveness of the new French government.
3. Redefining roles of French institutions: In examining Macron’s motives in introducing the reforms to the diplomatic corps as discussed above, it has become clear that the issue at hand goes beyond streamlining ministry resources or trying out a new approach to make the ministry more effective. Although the ministry of foreign affairs’ budget is being cut by 30 percent over the next ten years, the defense budget is set to increase by 23 percent in the next 5 years.
The strike is a wake-up call regarding the declining role of the diplomatic corps and soft power in the eyes of the current government regarding French engagements abroad. Instead, the government has adopted a traditional strategy of deterrence and hard power. There is no doubt that the Russia-Ukraine war has contributed to accelerating the pace of these reforms, which are seen as the product of an internal reassessment of the roles of various government institutions and a corresponding reallocation of resources.
4. Effects on parliamentary elections: Thisstrike will certainly cast a shadow over the parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 to 16 June. It is expected that candidates from either the leftist opposition bloc led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon or the more cohesive extremist right-wing bloc under the leadership of Marine Le Pen will exploit the strike in order to gain greater rapport with voters. Macron and his government will be seen as not having succeeded in maintaining cohesive governmental institutions, and it will be hard for him to gain opposition voters’ sympathies.
Although diplomats have generally refrained from disclosing their political affiliations due to professional standards, cross-cutting relationships have still developed between diplomats and political party leadership. This is due to their important standing and access to decision-making circles in various contexts, especially with regard to Republican businessmen who have investments and interests in many other countries. As a result, they have often established strong relationships with the ambassadors based in those countries.
In conclusion, the French diplomats’ strike cannot be addressed separately from the internal challenges facing the French government or factors related to international context. The implications described above reflect the broad scope of the issues playing out around the strike. This also sheds light on the increasing precariousness of domestic French politics, especially if the parliamentary elections should leave to a sudden ministerial change. That could lead to further division within the executive branch, whose leader Macron has suffered from declining popular support despite his victory in the recent elections.