Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

French foreign policy

French diplomats can often be personally outstanding, but they seldom say the same things, writes Tewfik Aclimandos

Al-Ahram Weekly

I feel a kind of urge to evoke this topic, although I am no expert on it. I have had the opportunity over the years of meeting and developing friendships with many diplomats and other members of the French foreign policy community. I recently read some books written by a couple of French journalists and discussed them with Egyptian members of the foreign policy community. This may not be enough to develop a systematic and well-structured knowledge of foreign policy, but at least I have some impressions I want to share with readers.

Let us start with a friendly discussion I had with an Egyptian diplomat four years ago. Like me, he had a lot of praise and a lot of nice things to say about his French colleagues. They were hard-working, keen and subtle readers, had an impressively deep and extensive culture and a refined sense of dialogue. They were often superior to the other diplomats he had to deal with, he added.

But the problem, he said with a wry smile, was that it was difficult to find two French diplomats saying the same thing. Discussion with them was enlightening, but knowing where France stands was a difficult business. A lot can be learned by meeting any French diplomat, but two meetings with different people on the same topic can lead to confusion. He drew a comparison with the diplomats of another western country: they were less personally impressive, he said, but they all delivered the same message. If they considered the person they were talking to as an important partner, or a crucial ally, they would say a little more, though not much.

There was never any contradictory discourse.

I have personally met some 50, maybe even 100, French diplomats over the course of my career. With a few exceptions, I have always been favourably impressed. I draw a distinction between those who asked questions that led me to consider the issues in new ways, thereby considerably enriching my own perspective, and those who asked very good questions that enabled me to sum up my knowledge in a few sentences — always a useful exercise. Some cross-checking later showed that some of the smarter diplomats had occasionally or even systematically misused or misunderstood my statements, and, of course, five or six of them were uninterested or uninteresting. But quite a lot were really outstanding. However, until recently I was never able to understand what was really going on.

It is not so strange that the French diplomatic corps is so well-qualified, as the elite schools in France are still doing a good job even if some of them are declining. The French upper middle classes and others also provide their children with the tools to help them understand the world: books, know-how, travel, short or long stays in foreign countries, and, above all, a relatively open and inquiring mindset. Contact with foreign students often helps a lot. The French foreign ministry entrance examinations are also very tough.

It is interesting to compare this assessment with the books I have read recently. Vincent Jaubert’s La face cachée du Quai d’Orsay, or “The Hidden Face of the Quai d’Orsay,” seldom addresses the issues of competence and coordination. A short chapter deals with relations between the French foreign ministry and the country’s secret services, but the message of this is simple: relations were bad until the 1990s, and, though they have greatly improved, tensions still remain. The improvement is partly due to the creation of a “directorate for strategy” in the French secret services led by a career diplomat.

The book has some harsh criticisms and a few nice things to say about French diplomats, which is to be expected as it deals with the institution’s “hidden face”. It implies that the French Foreign Ministry is an elitist club composed of men (with a few women) clinging to their privileges, having a very high opinion of their country, used to a high standard of living, thinking (wrongly, he implies, though I beg to disagree) that France needs a worldwide diplomatic network to remain a great power, and displaying considerable ability in raising money to compensate for budget cuts, though this can be achieved using dubious methods.

Jaubert says mismanagement wastes a lot of money. Some of his examples are convincing, others less so. A lot of great French diplomats, he writes, are “underused”, or badly treated, or suffer from unfair disgrace. He talks of “elitism” and “the misuse of human resources,” which indirectly confirms my assessment that there is a lot of talent in the French Quai d’Orsay. There is a lot of insider gossip in his book dealing with appointments and missions that have more often than not nothing to do with optimising efficiency but owe a lot to other considerations.

A friend (and diplomatic insider) once went as far as to say (in 2006) that since the beginning of former French president François Mitterrand’s second term in office all the crucial appointments in the French diplomatic service were “strange” even if those appointed were well-qualified or proved efficient. This meant that the best candidates seldom got the jobs, and if they did get them this was not because they were the best, but was for other reasons. I see in this assessment an indirect vindication of my own view that the general level of the French diplomatic service is very high.  

    Another book, Les Chemins de Damas, or “The Roads to Damascus,” written by celebrated French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunnot is outstandingly informative, though I will not dwell on the Paris gossip speculating on their sources. The book is an account of the relations between Syria and France from the beginning of the 1980s to the Arab Spring. I will sum up their findings in another article. Suffice it to say here that the authors describe a cacophonic foreign policy, with many individual or institutional actors having different opinions and analyses, conflicting interests, and undertaking sudden and contradictory initiatives, with messy results.

I learnt a lot from this important book, and I have not been alone in doing so. Nevertheless, the book leads one to think that there is never coordination between actors in the French Foreign Ministry, and I am almost sure that this is not true.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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