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Epistolary Revolt: The Crisis in French Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

Commentary, 4 March 2011
Defence Policy, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
The recent public questioning of French foreign policy comes at an inconvenient time for President Sarkozy, and has done nothing to reassure the French people of their nation's continued global influence.

The recent public questioning of French foreign policy comes at an inconvenient time for President Sarkozy, and has done nothing to reassure the French people of their nation's continued global influence.

By Leslie-Anne Duvic Paoli for

Obama and Sarkozy

A letter published in the French newspaper Le Monde on 22 February by a group of anonymous diplomats should not have attracted much attention. But following weeks of media coverage on the mishandling of the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, complemented by various gaffes by French politicians, the letter has served as the catalyst for a rare debate over the relevance of French foreign policy and a crisis of morale inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the 'Quai d'Orsay').

Written under the penname 'Marly' by a group of anonymous diplomats who - they claim - come from different generations and various political allegiances, the letter is a harsh criticism of President Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign policy decisions. The letter describes his policies as incoherent, impulsive and unprofessional, and it expresses concern that France's global influence is shrinking.[1] In this respect it recalls a letter written by an anonymous group of military officers in June 2008, which criticised President Sarkozy after the publication of the White Paper on Defence and National Security.[2] The 'Marly' letter was published as international events and France's role have been at the centre of media scrutiny for several weeks. It has therefore received far greater attention - leading to further unsigned letters and unprecedented public interventions from officials.

Foreign policy is the exclusive prerogative of the President, with decisions usually taken in a consensual manner that bridges political divides. But now the current discontent is serious, and may have damaging effects. The 'Marly' fiasco thus raises two important questions. Firstly, what is the true meaning behind this unprecedented revolt from the diplomatic service? Furthermore, is this representative of a real crisis in France's foreign policy and within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

A foreign policy entangled in the turmoil of the upheavals

Taken by surprise by the upheavals in North Africa and Middle East, many Western governments and foreign services are facing difficult decisions in determining what should be done to both best respond to the new realities on the ground, and to help create the conditions needed for a stable democratic transition.

Due to its historic presence in the region, the French reaction to the uprisings has been under intense scrutiny, especially from the domestic media. The increased scrutiny has brought with it acerbic criticism. The Tunisian revolution in particular has severely weakened French foreign policy. It was expected that due to the close ties between the two countries - Tunisia being a former colonial protectorate, and France its largest trading partner - France would possess a uniquely informed understanding of the situation. That it did not predict or appreciate the scale of the uprisings has proved particularly surprising. Various faux pas have added to the embarrassment, and in particular Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie's offer during the Tunisian riots to share French crowd control expertise and her allegedly close links to the Ben Ali regime caused great controversy - which ultimately led to her resignation on 27 February.

The mishandling of the situation was such that critics have now launched attacks on all areas of President Sarkozy's foreign policy, from his decision to reintegrate France into the NATO military command to his creation in 2008 of a Union for the Mediterranean - with Hosni Mubarak as co-president.[3] Not only have the close relationships that French politicians maintain with autocrats been placed under the spotlight,[4] but the country's grandiose set of principles in favour of human rights and the right to self-determination have been shown to be no more than rhetoric. President Sarkozy's hope of restoring a moral dimension to French diplomacy - symbolised by the creation of a position of Secretary for Human Rights and the appointment Bernard Kouchner, founder of the Doctors without Borders, as Foreign Minister - has been very publicly undermined by the necessity of realpolitik.[5]           

The Quai d'Orsay faced with uncertainties

Upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East have undeniably shaken French diplomacy, but the recent uproar amongst French diplomats has uncovered some long-term problems within the Ministry itself. The resentment displayed by some diplomats toward President Sarkozy reveals an uneasiness in the relationship between the Quai d'Orsay and the presidential palace. Whilst the freedom given to the Foreign Minister and its ministry has varied depending on the inclination of the various presidents of the Fifth Republic, President Sarkozy has retained a high degree of control over foreign policy issues. His diplomatic cell has always been at the centre of the decision-making process, leaving little or no control for the Quai to determine foreign policy strategy.

The departure of Bernard Kouchner from the Ministry created hope that the Quai would regain some degree of autonomy in the making of foreign policy and that the opinions of its diplomats would be more listened to by the executive power. But frustration grew even more when, following the uprisings, French diplomats were openly criticised by the President for failing to perform - an incendiary backlash exemplified by the sacking of the Ambassador in Tunisia for having not been able to accurately predict the protests.

The Quai d'Orsay is today faced with an acute identity crisis, as diplomats still try to grasp the changing nature of their role. Diplomatic issues are becoming ever more globalised, and the Quai is often bypassed on international issues by other ministries such as the Ministry for Economy and Finance, and increasingly even by the Ministry of the Environment. The result is that the Quai d'Orsay feels that the mastery of international issues is slipping out of its control.

There is little doubt that the difficult working conditions at the Ministry have exacerbated resentment towards the executive power over the years. Budget cuts have had a detrimental affect on the Ministry's ability to carry out its work. It now maintains a tricky challenge of keeping up the world's second largest diplomatic network, and spreading France's influence in the world with a 20 per cent decline in its budget and personnel numbers over the last twenty-five years.[6] The austerity measures imposed by President Sarkozy - projected to eliminate three-quarters of posts vacated by retiring diplomats between 2010 and 2013 [7] - have proved morale-sapping and anger-inducing.

The challenges facing President Sarkozy

With only fourteen months left before the next presidential election, and ongoing discussions in the media about potential candidates, President Sarkozy is facing a crucial period as he seeks re-election to a second term. His foreign policy decisions will play an important part in the French electorate's overall assessment of his tenure. Foreign policy is a central factor in defining French pride and identity, and presidents have always tried to use foreign policy to reinforce their position on the domestic stage. President Sarkozy's popularity was at its highest during his presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). At that time, whilst he was not considered a competent domestic operator, he was acclaimed by the French people for his work as the head of the EU. [8]

But the strategy of using international events to strengthen one's domestic position can have its drawbacks. Indeed, the latest scandals have weakened President Sarkozy, as is evidenced by his lowest-ever approval ratings (currently 30 per cent). The French Presidency of the G8 and G20 summits will not be enough to bring President Sarkozy back to the levels of popularity he would hope for in a pre-election season, especially given that the ambitious goals France has set for the summits will be difficult to achieve. 

As a result of the Le Monde letter, the role of French foreign policy - not normally discussed between political parties - is likely to form part of the debate in the upcoming presidential elections. While 72% of French people currently think that their country's image in the world has deteriorated since Nicolas Sarkozy became president,[9] the potential opponent from the socialist party, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, enjoys the trust of the population, benefiting from an image of competence and power deriving from his position as director of the International Monetary Fund.[10] This factor alone makes him a serious contender.

Before the electoral campaign begins, President Sarkozy needs to take decisive actions to end the controversy and restore the Quai's credibility.[11] The reshuffle on Sunday 27 February was but one of the necessary steps. President Sarkozy seemingly understood the importance afforded to this issue by the French public, making a television address on Sunday to announce the reshuffle, a procedure normally undertaken by a spokesman. He presented this reshuffle as a new team of ministers best able to 'protect' the French population from uncontrolled migratory flux and the risks of terrorism.[12] The new Foreign Minister, former Minister of Defence Alain Juppé, is an experienced politician, who won his spurs as Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Balladur government (1993-1995). Having presided over the discussions on the White Paper on foreign policy in 2008,[13] he is acutely aware of the difficulties of the Ministry. This well-respected politician is expected to seek more autonomy for the Quai d'Orsay [14] and should hence gain the confidence of the diplomats. He should be able to liaise between the Elysée and the Quai in order to make the difficult decisions concerning France's response to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond.

Alain Juppé will also need to implement structural reform, refining and improving the decision-making processes at the Quai. The uprisings have highlighted the failure of prospective analysis, corroborated by the fact that the prospective foreign-policy making unit, the Direction de la Prospective, had been facing difficulties since it was created in 2008 to replace the Centre d'Analyse et de Prévision (CAP).[15] Former Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie immediately announced more financial means for prospective work inside the Quai,[16] which is to be welcomed, but does not go far enough: it is the entire structure of the Direction de la Prospective that needs to be revised. With the foreign policy decision process divided unequally between the Elysée and the Quai, the Direction de la Prospective should be attached to the Elysée and not to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the same way the Centre d'Analyse Stratégique works under the Prime Minister's tutelage to advise him on strategic principles in terms of economic, social, environmental and cultural issues.

The real challenge is to have a policy planning unit that is close enough to power to be able to have an impact on decision makers, but independent enough not to be caught in the bureaucratic process.[17] In order to achieve this, the structure will need to be flexible, balancing expertise with politics by welcoming various external personalities from think tanks, universities, the media and the private sector who can provide long-term strategic thinking. This is only one amongst other reforms that could be undertaken to make sure that the executive power and the diplomatic service have the right tools to both understand the international arena, and then make the right decisions.


The debate that has followed France's ineffective response to the Middle East and North African uprisings reflects a wider French fear of losing influence on the world scene. As the French historian René Rémond once said:

'[b]etween the fear of decline and the hope of redressment... [France and its politicians] move, almost without transition, from an inferiority complex that is denied by our unquestionable successes, to a superiority complex that sometimes makes us unbearable to our partners. We go back and forth between moroseness and self-importance'. [18]

The current problems in the diplomatic service reflect the concerns of a country which feels that its position on the world stage might be threatened in an increasingly uncertain international environment. In order to make sure that he makes foreign policy decisions that reinforce France's position in the world, the President needs to open the debate beyond his own small diplomatic team and at least take input from diplomats and members of the prospective unit.

Parliament should ideally be included in the decision-making process in order to make it more democratic. If one of the President's core competencies became less exclusive, it would ensure that the excessive retention of power by the executive in foreign policy choices does not blind policymakers. It would encourage a more collaborative and inclusive foreign policy formulation, leading to options that are better informed and thus better able to strengthen the country's influence in the world.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.




[3] President Sarkozy announced that he now aims to revive the Union for the Mediterranean to strengthen the relations between the EU and the new North African regimes.

[4] Colonel Qaddafi's lavish welcome to Paris in 2007 has of course been extensively commented upon.

[5] This necessity for pragmatism had already been recognised with the suppression of the position Secretary for Human Rights  in November 2010.

[6] and p.7





[11] For instance, because of the Tunisian scandal, Michel Alliot-Marie's was sent last week to Brazil and was not part of the French delegation visiting Tunisia which was headed by the Minister of the Economy Christine Lagarde.

[12] President's Sarkozy television address, Sunday 27 February


[14] It seems that Alain Juppé had refused the post in November 2010 because he had asked for conditions of autonomy that President Sarkozy had not accepted to give him. It appears from his declarations following his new appointment that Alain Juppé wants to create a more autonomous, stronger diplomatic apparatus, by putting an end to the financial cuts the Ministry has been facing these past years. and

[15] The fact that its former Director, Marie Mendras, did not seem to give entire satisfaction, is one example.


[17] For interesting discussions of the work of prospective units, see for instance Zbigniew Brzezinski "Purpose and Planning in Foreign Policy", National Affairs, 14, winter 1969, pp.52-73 ; Henry Kissinger, "Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy", Daedalus, spring 1966, pp. 503-529.

[18] René Rémond, « L'acceptation du changement ne signifie pas l'oubli du passé », Le Monde, 9 janvier 2001.


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