The president’s sweeping changes to bureaucratic institutions ahead of the 2022 presidential election aim to ensure that seats of power are filled with those in line with his vision.
The sudden removal of Christophe Farnaud as head of the French foreign ministry’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) section, shocked many, especially as the news comes amidst ongoing tensions between France and many countries in the region.
Farnaud, whose responsibilities covered Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Algeria, amongst others, was replaced last month by Anne Gueguen. The whole affair was read by those in the diplomatic world as a power move by President Emmanuel Macron. This is a likely explanation, given that if Macron’s term has indicated anything, it’s that the actions taken by the president are often motivated by his short term interests and his desire to further entrench his power.
In some ways the president had already warned the diplomatic corps of his plans back in 2019, when during an address to his ambassadors, he explained that they would all be expected to support and put into practice his ideas for the foreign ministry. At the time, POLITICO reported that unnamed officials had indicated that Farnaud was not as supportive of Macron’s plans as the president would have wanted.
The sacking of Farnaud has already come to symbolise the starting point of the implementation process for Macron’s reforms within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The message sent is clear: if he is prepared to unceremoniously remove such a high-ranking civil servant, whose brief covers such an important region, no one is safe. In fact, the president has intended for a while to introduce more radical reforms, which would leave hundreds of diplomatic workers in a precarious position, perhaps even without a job.
Macron’s reshuffle and restructuring of French foreign affairs institutions is an exercise in furthering his control in the lead up to the 2022 elections by ensuring that seats of power are filled with those “in line” with his vision.
It is a sensitive time for France and its management of political relationships with the MENA region, particularly given the rising rifts with the Algerian state over the slashing of visas from France, and public comments that the president has made including asking, "was there an Algerian nation before French colonisation?"
Macron’s new order, and its success in asserting his aims, is likely to be tested during the upcoming international summit on Libya that France will host.
The Foreign Service is not the only place where Macron is breaking with tradition and asserting his power. He already announced, for example, his decision to “abolish” the National School of Administration (ENA), which is a long-standing French institution that forms the country’s senior civil servants, including diplomats. It will be replaced with the ‘National Institute of Public Service’ early next year.
Founded by former president Charles de Gaulle in 1945, the ENA was set up in Strasbourg to produce elite civil servants that the state would control from the start of their training, and onwards. At the time, the selection process at entry also allowed the state to target collaborators and supporters of the Vichy regime.
The Elysée justified the dissolution of the institute with the claim it would allow for more equal opportunities for French citizens to enter the top ranks of the civil service.
The controversial decision was seen as appeasement during the period of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) uprisings that erupted across France in 2018, over the country’s deep social inequalities and ongoing state repression.
However, it’s important to note that Macron himself studied at the institution, which has a reputation for educating all those who have gone on to lead the country. He is very much a product of the very elite that continues to strengthen the divide between rich and poor in France.
In the time since his election, he has demonstrated that he does not rule in the interests of the poor or the oppressed, making his apparent concerns about elitism and inequality hard to take seriously.
The discrimination suffered by poor, racialised and/or Muslim communities in France has long been documented. For example, in 2018, the French National Institute of Statistics carried out research that involved sending CVs with both Muslim and non-Muslim names to employers. The study found that applicants with “Muslim-sounding” names were 2.5 to 3 times less likely to be contacted for an interview.
In addition, in 2019, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) was commissioned to analyse 40 of the largest multinational companies in France in relation to their treatment of job applicants. The study showed that seven of the companies – including vehicle manufacturer Renault and airline Air France – were guilty of discrimination against candidates with North-African/Arabic-sounding names. The state has yet to react to these findings. Instead, it continues to criminalise the very collection of data on the question of racial discrimination.
In reality, if Macron really had any interest in addressing the problem of inequality, he would be radically reviewing employment law, education funding, and the severe social inequalities in the republic that determine citizens’ access to the best schools, training and job opportunities. He would address the high levels of racism embedded across French society and the continued ghettoisation of largely Muslim, North and West African, working class populations around France’s largest cities. Ignoring the racial elements that dictate the inaccessibility of French institutions will change nothing.
In the run-up to the elections, Macron is working hard to centralise and project power, and position his allies. In an election that the far right will dominate, he has clearly decided that he needs to come across as the strong man that France needs, one who is not afraid to make controversial decisions and cannot be depicted by his far-right opponents as a member of the establishment – an unlikely strategy for a sitting president.
The reality, however, is that Macron is a product of the very institutions he is claiming to ‘take on’, and that there is no indication that what he is putting in place is any different from the elitist and unequal institutions that made him. In a sense, it is a rather good illustration of his presidential promise to offer a different kind of politics. All that is changing is the name.
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