Thursday,22 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Thursday,22 November, 2018
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ethnography at the Foreign Ministry

A new book provides a fascinating ethnography of the French Foreign Ministry, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

An Ethnography of the French Foreign Ministry, a book written by French political scientist Christian Lequesne and published earlier this year, is a must read for all those interested in French foreign policy.

The author had unprecedented access to the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign office, was allowed to attend four different types of meeting, including daily ones between senior figures in the ministry, and was able to conduct in-depth interviews with dozens of senior diplomats. This means that the book relies on interviews and “direct observation”. What is lacking, as the author warns, is a study of the ministry’s younger diplomats. But that would have required a team of researchers and putting one together would have been too complicated to achieve.

The author, a specialist on European policies, says he felt he had to carry out this study as books on French foreign policy written by journalists and focusing on scandals and occasional mismanagement are misleading. He specially targets French journalist Vincent Jauvert’s book Quai d’Orsay: la face cachée (The Hidden Face of the Quai d’Orsay) for criticism. I would not go as far as Lequesne does in criticising such books, as I have learned a lot from them. But it is clear that they do not enable us to understand the complexities of the bureaucracy and of the daily workings of the ministry.

The study deals with many issues, including why and how people become diplomats, how they organise their professional careers, their sociological profile, women in the foreign ministry, retired diplomats, how diplomats see their role and how they try to fit in, their daily work, the impact of the profession on private life and vice versa, relations with politics, political leaders and the president of the country, the conflicting “sets of perceptions” in the ministry, the role of discourse in the profession, diplomatic correspondence, French consulates abroad, and so on.

The senior diplomats come from France’s upper middle classes and from upper class families. Some were admitted to the ministry after having been schooled at the prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration, which forms those who opt for a career in the higher ranks of the French civil service, while others went through different sets of exams called les concours d’orient. Some diplomats specialise in one area, while others are generalists. Many of the top figures have never served in the non-Western world, but with the rise of China and Asia in general this has started to change. Affirmative action at the ministry has slowly empowered women, but those at the top are overwhelmingly men.

The description of daily work in the “central administration” of the ministry is particularly good, and Lequesne is especially strong in describing the coordination inside the ministry and with other agencies, most notably the French presidency. However, he seldom mentions the Defence Ministry. Some procedures are time-consuming — the need for notes to be approved by an assistant director, for instance. Reading mail and writing notes is an essential component of activity at the ministry, and diplomats are easily overworked.

The description of the work of an embassy abroad is above average, but it is not as rich as the previous section on life in the ministry in Paris. Lequesne stresses the difficulties of an ambassador’s role. An embassy typically includes people from many other ministries, and a lot of time is spent in coordination meetings. The ambassador must oversee the work of everyone working in the embassy, as well as its budget. He also has to attend all kinds of events, which may seem frivolous but in fact is exhausting. He also has to gather information.

Last but not least, the ambassador is a fount of information on the country in which he is posted. Deciding what to tell and how to tell it plays a considerable role in his job, and his calculations include the reality of the situation, what his bosses want to hear, his own set of values, and his professional calculations. The ambassador often feels alone.

Lequesne describes three different roles in his book — those of the bureaucrat, the mediator, and the hero. All diplomats play all three roles at one time or another. Bureaucracy is all about procedures and budgets. But a diplomat is also a mediator, as he has to explain the country he finds himself in to other officials and to the civil society of another country. He also has to explain other countries to his own. This role, as well as being taken to be the voice of France abroad, is distinct but it is also intertwined with others. Finally, an ambassador has to manage political crises, to protect French nationals, and to organise humanitarian assistance. When he does these things, he plays the role of the hero.

The relationship between diplomats and politicians in France is well-observed. The diplomat considers himself to be a professional in the field of foreign policy and the politician to be an amateur. But the diplomat is also the servant of the amateur. The diplomat draws a distinction between a strong minister and a weak one: the strong one is on good terms with the president, is or becomes proficient in the technicalities of foreign policy, knows how to protect the ministry’s share of the government budget, and has clear ideas on administrative reform.

Some diplomats have clear political affiliations, while others do not. This also has an impact, since as a rule a president or a minister in France will choose his close advisers from among diplomats belonging to the same political party. But there are exceptions. Lequesne distinguishes two “cognitive maps”. Put in simple terms, French diplomats in his view belong to one of two very different worldviews or schools. The first is Gaullist and Mitterrandist, while the second is “occidentalist”, or “Western-oriented”. Some would label the latter school neo-conservative, but this is inaccurate as many “Westerners” in France are not fond of neo-conservatism.

Former French presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand both believed France should not align itself too closely with American positions: it should behave as an ally defending its own interests and not as a client doing the same things as the boss, they thought. They also believed in an “Arab policy” for France, in a “special relationship with West Africa”, considered the French-speaking world to be important, and tended to prefer “interests” over “values”.

The Westerners consider de Gaulle’s position towards the state as having been unproductive at best, evoking the “Western family” instead of the “Western alliance.” They are often critical of France’s Arab and African policies, and they believe in the strong advocacy of Western values. The first viewpoint is the classical one, and the second, slowly rising in influence, is the newer one that was partially encouraged by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his foreign minister Bernard Kouchner. Former president François Hollande belonged to the traditional worldview.

This book is captivating, and I learnt a lot from it. It is very readable and provides much sound information. Nevertheless, I felt that it did not capture the malaise at the Quai d’Orsay as shrinking budgets have deprived many French diplomats of many of their tools. Moreover, Lequesne does not reveal how they have faced up to certain crises.


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

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