Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Occasionally a news story crosses the wires that defies any obvious categorizing. Reuters ran such a story on Monday, which I would describe as the AFL-CIO meets Monty Python. According to the wire story that ran at 14:18 Eastern Standard Time, French diplomats went on strike for 24 hours over what they judged to beexcessive cutsintheir budget at the French Foreign Office.

Ofcourse, one’sfirst thought is how can you tell? Did either war or peace break out at a faster rate as the diplomats lay down their briefcases and put aside their professional sneers? As I understand the theory of work force strikes, workers who produce things of value refuse to contribute their labor to the production process. The owners of the means of production, fearing being driven to the financial wall by not having valuable things to sell, capitulate and agree to higher wages and better working conditions for the downtrodden, but valuable, workers.

It would not seem that the French diplomats are in a particularly strong bargaining position. Surely a non-striking member of management could dash into a meeting with, say, American diplomats, and glare across the table and say “Non!” Admittedly, the professional french diplomat would precede such a response with several paragraphs of incomprehensible, but highly intellectual- sounding circumlocutions, before getting to the point of saying “Non!” but the result for France would be the same. Similarly, while the diplomats are on strike, almost any French citizen could take their places at cocktail parties with English or American guests and refuse to talk in any language but French. He could even speak especially fast, so that even their foreign guests who can speak some French would have a particularly hard time understanding them.

According to Reuters, at the French embassy in Rome, in the fresco-decorated Renaissance Palazzo Farnese, the embassy was “closed to the public” because of the strike. How does that differ, functionally, from being open to the public? At their London embassy, a recorded message said that the they would be operating “at a reduced service,” which brings to mind the equation 0 x plus or minus X = 0.

But beyond the matter of their professional utility, it is odd that a profession whose raison d’etre is talk, not action, would snap quickly into action on its own behalf. Why didn’t they negotiate, using all their vaunted diplomatic skills? Is it possible that French diplomats don’t believe in diplomacy when it comes to things they really care about? Are they brothers under the skin with President Bush after all, when it comes to judging the efficacy of diplomacy?

The French diplomats’ union, USMAE, ordered the strike actions because the budget cuts had, to quote Reuters, “hit diplomats allowances abroad and even led to paper shortages in some missions and Foreign Ministry offices.” This shortage of paper brings to mind one of those Babar stories of the elephant bureaucrats rushing about forming committees and issuing reports when the Rhinoceros army is at the gates of the city. Usually, workers strike so they can afford to put food on their kitchen table. The French diplomats’ cry of “We need more paper” would not seem to be calculated to stir the hearts of a nation.

More broadly, the diplomats complained that the budget cuts “make a mockery of President Jacques Chirac’s bid to boost French influence abroad.” (I would have thought that M. Chirac didn’t need any help in making a mockery of that bid.) “The French approach is that you can solve world problems through diplomacy. If that is so, then give us the resources,” said Yvan Sergeff, the French union boss. He went on to bemoan that “We do not understand how President Jacques Chirac and the government proclaim grand ambitions for France internationally even as human and financial means of this ministry are constantly shrinking.” I share M. Sergeff’s skepticism regarding French ambitions — with or without a fully funded diplomatic corp. Certainly, Germany has made it increasingly clear in the months since the Iraqi war that it does not plan to hitch its wagon to the French “star.”

Nonetheless, as we enter the Christmas season, my heart does go out to the disconsolate French consuls, sitting paperless and with reduced expense accounts in some of the most beautiful capital cities of the world. I suppose they can take some comfort in the stirring response of their leader, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin; “There is a will to maintain our diplomatic capacity.” Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! More paper!

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