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Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2010-06-03

France prides itself on its extensive diplomatic network, which is second only to that of the US. But unrelenting budget cuts have seriously undermined its ability to function according to a new book on the French foreign ministry.

France’s famed lavish diplomatic receptions may soon be consigned to the history books. According to the author of “Les Diplomates”*, investigative journalist Frank Renaud, sharp budgetary cuts threaten the ‘soirées’ for which the French diplomatic service has long been famous. Budgetary constraints appear to be especially hard to swallow for the four-century old ministry which is obsessed with “France’s rank” in the world – a catchword that entails maintaining an extensive network of 160 embassies and 98 consulates.
Bastille Day sponsored by Coca-Cola

Even the sacrosanct Bastille Day (the holiday celebrating the French revolution held on the 14th July) garden party hasn’t been spared by the bean counters. French embassies have found themselves scrambling for corporate sponsors in an effort to keep the champagne flowing.

The book includes the copy of an invitation to the 2008 Bastille Day party at the French embassy in Vietnam, where Coca-Cola appears as a sponsor alongside Hennessy cognac and Moet & Chandon champagne. The institution’s prestige is also under fire as diplomats have been forced to restrict the guest list for budgetary reasons.

French influence under fire

The book describes how a freshly-arrived diplomat in Hanoi found out he had only a few thousands euros per year for his cooperation action (cultural activities and expenses) in Vietnam. The budget cuts are directly undermining the foundations of Paris’s influence across the world – including it 1,007 Alliances Françaises (an organisation whose mission is to promote the French language and culture outside France) and 461 lycées français (French schools based abroad).

“The network is still there. However, it represents a burden on public finances, and doesn’t have the means to function anymore”, writes Frank Renaud.

The French government has repeatedly vowed to keep the country’s “diplomatie d’influence” afloat by streamlining the various cultural, education, and cooperation services into a single agency. But the project has been marred by delays. Even the name of the future agency was a matter of heated debate. After failing to agree on “Institut Camus” or Institut Victor Hugo”, French representatives finally settled on… “Institut Français”.

Chinese security bargains

Budgetary cuts have also proved controversial in terms of security at French embassies, according to Frank Renaud’s investigation. In a bid to save money, the French ambassador to China between 2004 and 2006, Philippe Guelluy, allowed a Chinese state-owned company to install surveillance cameras in the diplomatic compound.

His predecessor, Jean-Pierre Lafon, rather alarmingly bragged about getting a local Chinese company to renovate his residency’s guest room for free… The diplomatic compound had to subsequently be thoroughly checked for illicit surveillance devices by the DGSE, France’s intelligence agency.

Diplomatic frustrations

Budgetary cuts have also aggravated the career diplomats’ old grievance against the nomination of non-diplomats to prestigious postings. According to the Frank Renaud’s book, this practice is likely to continue unabated with France’s latest diplomatic trend: the nomination of a special ambassador in charge of a specific “global mission”. There are currently 23 of these ambassadors, ranging from a former Green leader in charge of climate change negotiations to an international justice lawyer heading up human rights.

Such nominations are especially easy to do in France, where the president can legally install an ambassador without parliamentary approval.


* "Les Diplomates", edition Nouveau Monde




Date created : 2010-06-03