Home / Articles / Macron’s Radical Reform to French Diplomacy
President Emmanuel Macron has proposed controversial reforms to the French civil service, including the French foreign ministry.
The changes will result in senior diplomats no longer being attached to the foreign ministry for the duration of their careers. Critics argue that this will undermine France’s deep well of diplomatic expertise.
Macron insists that the foreign ministry needs to modernize, increase French influence among foreign populations (not just elites), and address challenges that will define the 21st century, like climate change and food security.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article (“France, une grogne en cache une autre”) was published in Medias 24. Antonella Benedetto contributed to the translation from French to English.
On March 16, while French citizens were protesting pension reforms and clashing with the police, President Emmanuel Macron found time to deliver a speech at the Quai d’Orsay (French foreign ministry). There, Macron endorsed a controversial reform of the country’s diplomatic corps.
Specifically, Macron’s reformcalls for the winding down of the historic corps of French diplomacy by the end of 2023, and the creation of a new corps in its place. If enacted, the reform will result in all senior officials, including those of the Quai d’Orsay, no longer being attached to a specific administration. They can flexibly work among the different government ministries, and switch responsibilities during their career.
This reform has aroused the anger of the country’s diplomats who are rightly worried about the effects of these changes on French diplomacy. France has the third-largest diplomatic network in the world, after the United States and China. It also comes at a time when the world is going through various and intractable crises, and when France itself has not fully emerged from the post-covid economic stagnation.
Already in May 2022, a collective of diplomats launched an appeal through the press in which they expressed their anger at the brutal suppression of the diplomatic corps, which negatively affects the ranks of counselors and plenipotentiary ministers. A month later, the entire ministry went on strike for only the second time in its history. The diplomats denounced the reform, which they said would destroy skills and cause the country to lose invaluable expertise.
French diplomats fear above all the disappearance of professional diplomacy. For them, diplomacy is a profession that traditionally is learned over time through experience and knowledge transfer among diplomats. They suspect that this reform reflects a ministry that is not very open and isolated. This reform will only lead to appointments of convenience, to the detriment of competence and efficiency, according to the French diplomats.
To appease their revolt, Macron went to the Quai d’Orsay to pass this reform, which poses fewer problems than the other one concerning pensions. He tried to be pedagogical by underlining the qualities of diplomats, and emphasizing that they were armed wings of France’s international action. He claimed that diplomacy is a profession of commitment that regularly faces the rhythm of crises, a profession of passion as well as servitude
Despite his soothing speech, Macron only added discontent. This frustration manifested on the streets, against his pension reform, as well as the diplomats disappointed by his amateurism on the international scene and its effects on the country’s global position. I acknowledge your profession, he seemed to say, but a profession does not need a trade to exist.
To calm the souls, the president affirmed that 60 percent of diplomats have agreed to join the state administration by accepting the reform. But do they really have a choice? Macron sees an encouraging sign of adherence from the inter-ministerial committee that he hopes to impose on the whole senior civil service, and on the diplomatic service in particular. This profession, according to him, is recognized by the judgment of colleagues.
Once he passes this reform, Macron hopes to move on to the application of diplomacy based on four pillars. The first is to better coordinate the interventions of French institutions and operators abroad with a profoundly renewed core business. The goal is to be able to assemble circles of solidarity in Europe, within the Atlantic alliance, in the Indo-Pacific, and in other regions of the world.
To do this, Macron calls for strengthening the analytical capacity of the political directorates of the Quai d’Orsay and the consolidation of strategic culture. The reform should question habits and review dogmas in order to provide French diplomacy the ability to look beyond immediate crises capacity. The ultimate objective will be to structure the profession in influencing the capacity at home and abroad.
This capacity to influence is the second feature mentioned in his speech. The French president criticizes a sort of ambient relativism among those who are perceived as the voice of France, the diplomats, who favor speeches of deconstruction and revision. In return, he proposes to reinforce the capacities of influence by modernizing the tools of communication. Influence is not only played out in the country’s circles of power where diplomats act, but among a country’s population, as well.
After these two features, Macron evokes a third aspect which consists in taking into consideration global challenges. France’s diplomacy will depend on its ability to reach agreements with the rest of the world on major issues such as climate, energy, and food, which are the subject of complex negotiations. For this reason, he mentions the need to have an interministerial culture, as presented in his reform.
Reforming diplomacy is certainly a complex and difficult process since it requires time and appropriate human and financial resources. In principle, any administrative reform seems difficult to carry out because of fixed structures and habits. It is even more difficult when it comes to diplomacy, which is rooted in relations with other nations and practices that have been established for ages, with rigid habits, customs and structures that are difficult to easily reshape.
Any diplomatic reform, therefore, requires a strong political will. Above all, it requires the support of diplomats so that the changes are effective and sustainable. Since these changes have been announced, the disappointment is even more widespread among French diplomats, some of whom question the blindness and amateurism of Macron’s international relations management.
Subjected to the duty of confidentiality, French diplomats did not harshly protest like their other fellow citizens against the pension reform. One French diplomat told a journalist anonymously, that this reform is not a problem in itself. The real issue consists of the generalist administration, whereas diplomacy needs specialists and very specific executives. “Our profession implies continuing learning and experience in the field,” he said.
But as in other reforms, Macron takes little consideration of the opinions of those involved and even less of his opponents. He forcefully pushed through his reform as he has previously done, creating a sense of disenchantment and confusion. But since foreign policy is less subjected to public opinion than domestic affairs, the reform imposed on the Quai d’Orsay brings him, for the moment, a mini victory to savor.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.