- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

From combined dispatches

French diplomats around the world went on strike yesterday to protest budget cuts so severe, they say, it is difficult to conduct foreign policy.

The one-day strike was the first by French diplomats. There were no picket lines outside the French Embassy in Washington, and an employee inside the Georgetown compound said yesterday seemed normal.

“There is not much of a difference. It is sort of symbolic,” said the embassy employee, who asked not to be identified.

In Paris, about 200 diplomats picketed their parliament.

“The French approach is that you can solve world problems through diplomacy. If that is so, then give us the resources,” said Yvan Sergeff, of public sector trade union USMAE in Paris.

“[We] do not understand how President Jacques Chirac and the government proclaim grand ambitions for France internationally even as the human and financial means of this ministry are constantly shrinking,” USMAE and five other unions said in a statement.

Far from living the cushy life of two-hour, five-course lunches and dressing for embassy galas, the unions that represent the Foreign Service say that junior diplomats abroad cannot pay for housing or schools for their children.

“This level of impoverishment cannot be sustained,” said Danielle Milanini of the union Force Ouvriere.

“Building security codes or maintenance contracts are not respected. There are missions where people are having to buy their own paper and pencils.”

The U.S. Embassy in Paris told the State Department that Foreign Ministry officials were at their desks, but showed their solidarity by wearing the uniform of rebellious youth — blue jeans.

The consular office in Washington was closed, but French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte was on the job. Embassy spokeswoman Nathalie Loiseau declined to comment, saying only that the strike is “an internal matter.”

Only 57 staffers with diplomatic status were authorized to strike at the Washington embassy, France’s largest mission with 400 employees. About 70 percent of the diplomatic staff was participating in some way in the strike, according to the Agence France-Presse news service.

Worldwide, the participation varied from a high of 90 percent of the diplomatic staff in Rome to a low of 20 percent in Moscow. As in Paris and Washington, many diplomats declared themselves officially on strike but still performed their duties.

USMAE said 126 of France’s 154 embassies — a diplomatic network second in spread only to that of the United States — were affected. The Foreign Ministry said most missions had been affected.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said half of France’s diplomats abroad went on strike, and a third of those in Paris.

Staff writer James Morrison contributed to this report.

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