La diplomatie française à l’ère numérique

L’arrivée du numérique a entraîné pour la diplomatie deux changements : la rapidité et l’universalité de la diffusion de l’information ; la prise d’autonomie de cette information qu’aucun Etat ne peut plus contrôler. Les fausses nouvelles ("fake news"), parfois très nocives, ont leur vie propre et il faut les combattre. Il s’ensuit pour les Etats deux nouvelles tâches : d’une part, ils doivent redoubler leur communication pour diffuser leurs points de vue avec la rapidité des nouveaux outils. La vitesse et la présence sur les nouveaux médias sont essentiels pour prendre de court les informations erronées. D’autre part, ils doivent réguler avec les autres Etats mais aussi les nouveaux acteurs internationaux que sont les grandes compagnies du numérique (les "GAFA") l’information qui circule pour tenir en échec la propagande du terrorisme ou du racisme par exemple.

L’ère digitale facilite aussi la projection dans le monde de notre "force douce" ou soft power, essentielle pour peser au 21ème siècle dans les débats et enjeux mondiaux. A cet égard, la France occupe depuis plusieurs années, grâce à ses initiatives diplomatiques notamment en matière de santé ou de climat, mais aussi sa culture, son sport, son art de vivre, la première ou la deuxième place selon les classements internationaux.

1. Your life and career short overlook.

After a baccalauréat in maths and physics, I was drawn into what we call a “prépa”, in other words a selective class to prepare the closed number exams (“concours”) for “grandes écoles de commerce”, our high institutes for economics and business administration. I got an MBA. But I had always felt scant taste for the private sector and a preference for public affairs and foreign peoples, cultures, economies.
At 15, I wanted to learn Chinese. I was attracted by this “mysterious” culture and convinced that behind those strange characters they write with, lay a different way of thinking, different associations, a different way of looking at the world, human nature, soul. The well-being of the peoples of the world was of genuine concern for me too, as I felt an eagerness for discovering other nations.

I had, at my “Grande Ecole”, an opportunity to start Arabic, which I grasped eagerly. After 3 years working, as a “coopérant” at our Embassy in Madrid, where I discovered the 800 fascinating years of Arab domination of Spain, then in a private bank, I decided to start new studies and prepare the “concours” for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I got a scholarship from the Kuwaiti Government to learn Arabic the fast way at Kuwait University, after which I eventually managed to join the French diplomacy, a longtime dream.

I did a variety of things at our Ministry. I served in several postings in the Middle East, in Yemen, Jordan and Israel, but for personal and family reasons I had to stay very long in Paris. This is not good for a career for which you have to be very mobile. I enjoyed my stint as “sous-directeur” for Western and Northern Europe at our EU direction, after which I was our Consul General in Edinburgh, Scotland, for 5 years. I greatly enjoyed that post, which might explain why I am here now.

At the head of one of the smallest consulates general you have in your city, I do no visas, which are transferred to a private contractor in town (VFS) and downwards to our consulate in Moscow, not much culture which is splendidly done by our Alliance Française and several organisations such as the Sverdlovskaya Philharmonia and Yeltsine Center. I try to concentrate on economic diplomacy. I accompanied a mission of businessmen from the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to Tchelyabinsk, convinced them to set a French pavilion at INNOPROM this summer for instance. Besides, I am the representative here of all the services of our embassy in Moscow.

2. A variety of routes to get a job in the French System of Consulates General & Embassies. + How that diplomatic system works around the globe. Can you also compare it to the Russian diplomatic service system ?

With 163 embassies, 92 consulates general or consulates, 135 consular consular sections and over 500 honorary consulates, France has the third network of embassies and consulates in the world after the United States (168 bilateral embassies) and China (164 embassies), just before the United Kingdom and Germany. 10 000 people work in our diplomatic service abroad and 5 000 in France.
This service is bolstered as a means of promoting French language and culture by over eight hundred Alliances Françaises and a hundred Instituts français. Our diplomatic system is no different from that of Russia in its aims of promoting our interests, the way we see global affairs and how they should be regulated, as well as a way to promote our “soft power”. In the means we use for those ends, we pay utmost attention to our respect of international law, human rights and the rule of no interference in other countries internal affairs.
There are indeed a variety of ways to join our ministry : contracts, direct appointments. But our system is known, in a very competitive career, to try to promote fairness through “concours” (close number exams). For the higher postings (ambassadors, consuls general), the Ecole nationale d’Administration (Higher Institute for public Administration) and “Concours d’Orient” (a “concours” for people specialized in eastern countries) are the normal way.

As for our Ecole nationale d’Administration it is worth noting that after being truly democratic when it was created in 1945, it got to recruit its students in an ever narrower part of the French society : the sons and daughters of high Parisian civil servants and professors – with fewer and fewer exceptions. A second characteristic is that once you are an “énarque”, whatever happens you have a career. If you are not, as a civil servant you are almost bound to struggle all your life. ENA came to embody the low level of social mobility in the French system.
For these reasons, President Macron recently decided to suppress it.

3. Diplomacy : Can we call the French Republic a place, where it all began ?

Wherever diplomacy started, France was among the first major European power to reach statehood.
In 1547, secretaries to the King became specialized, writing correspondence to foreign governments, and negotiating peace treaties. The four French secretaries of state where foreign relations were divided by region, in 1589, became centralized with one becoming first secretary responsible for international relations.
The Ancien Régime position of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs became Foreign Minister around 1723, and was renamed "Minister of Foreign Affairs" in 1791 after the French Revolution. All ministerial positions were abolished in 1794 by the National Convention and re-established with the Directory.

What could be said of our diplomacy throughout history ? Basically, in a nutshell, to achieve our national goals abroad a country can wage wars or sign treaties. France has waged many wars in Europe during the reigns of our kings, as well as colonial wars around the globe. My personal view is that among our diplomatic achievements two historic figures probably stand out. Talleyrand was our minister of Foreign Affairs under King Louis XVI, all the regimes of the revolution, Napoléon and two more kings after the revolution. Besides his incredible survival skills due to an extraordinary wit and vision, he managed to protect all the major interests of France at the Vienna Congress in 1814-15… even though we were, after the Napoleonic wars, the great losers. My second icon is Général de Gaulle. We had also been beaten during the second World War. In this capacity, we were not invited at the Yalta conference where the main powers fighting the nazi regime – the USSR, the USA and the United Kingdom – met to end the war. In spite of that, after months of intense negotiations by Général de Gaulle, France got a permanent seat at the Security Council of the United Nations Organisation (which was discussed there), besides the USSR, the USA, China and the UK (which was an unvanquished empire at the time). A couple of years later, he was the one to end the Algerian war and give Algeria its independence (even though France had won the war against the Algerian National Liberation Front).

What could be said these two great men had in common ? Well, beyond their loyalty to a regime or to earlier promises – some have considered them traitors and they made enemies - they put their visions and the interest of France in the long run first. Quite a revolutionary message when you think of it.

4. The future : the role of the digital diplomacy

Digital diplomacy is not the future. It is the 21st Century in which we live. ICT, social networks have transformed the world in which our countries have to defend their interests. For our governments, the changes are the following :
-  Information spreads much faster, much less can remain hidden,
-  Information lives its own life : it has become impossible to control it. No state media can maintain a monopoly of interpretation nor keep its citizens cut from the global world. Besides, fake news spread just as fast, as well as totally erroneous interpretations.
-  Gafas (for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), the major global companies wield more global power than many countries.

a. Diplomacy in the digital era :

For defending state interests abroad, this means several things : the first is that we, French civil servants abroad, have to be active on social media. This is called diplomacy “through digital technology”. We are very active. In 2017, more than 43 million Internet users visited the 267 sites of French embassies and consulates abroad which communicate in some 15 languages. At the same time, their social networking activity has intensified : 204 diplomatic posts communicate on Facebook and 149 on Twitter. They mainly use Twitter and Facebook but are capable of adapting to the most widespread local usages and platforms : for example, the French Embassy in China communicates on Weibo.

Our activity on social networks aims at promoting our views on World affairs, promoting French language and culture as well as human rights, democracy and freedom of expression.
This may mean to defend our positions, sometimes in situations where the limits between foreign and home affairs are blurred. Some of our ambassadors have been very successful at that, like our ambassador in the United States, Gérard Araud, who created special relationships with several State Departments in Washington by the comments he posted on Twitter in his own name (and not in that of his embassy).

But even though there might be cases in which the boundaries between home and foreign affairs are blurred, France will never interfere in any countries typically internal issues, like elections, through armies of paid trolls for instance to try and unsettle one candidate. These attempts, by the way, backlash, especially as the real authors end up being unmasked (however much they seek to remain anonymous).

An aspect of diplomacy in a digital world is that for long run negotiations, such as the Iran nuclear agreement, not only journalists, but the wider public want to be kept informed of all the developments and tend to eagerly comment on them. The negotiators cannot hold their cards within themselves as they used to. Accounts have to be rendered on a quasi-daily basis. This may well mean a different way of negotiating.
But some contents of the digital world cannot be fought without the help of the digital behemoths themselves. We need to have :

b. a diplomacy on the digital world itself.
A major challenge of our digital world is to combat hatred, racism, propaganda for criminal or terrorist organisations as well as fake news on the web. This has to be required with the help of the social networks themselves and is therefore another kind of diplomacy, on the digital world. At the end of 2017, we adopted an International Digital Strategy focused on three key pillars : governance, the economy and security. We aim at promoting an open governance associating freedom and a respect for standards, endorsed by the whole world starting with our closest allies, the European Union and like-minded countries who share our values. For this we have to engage with the digital behemoths.

Our President, Emmanuel Macron had a meeting on 10 May with Mark Zuckerberg (the CEO of Facebook) to discuss just that, plus the protection of private data. This came after a French report on the way social media regulate their contents and discussions, as well as what they do with the private data they collect from their users.
Zuckerberg and Macron also discussed a project of Charter on « hatred on line » France wants to see adopted by the G7 countries at their next summit in Biarritz (France) at the end of August as well as a “Christchurch Appeal” to make sure such massacre as that which happened in New Zealand in March cannot be reproduced. This appeal will be launched by CEOs of digital companies who will meet in Paris on 15 May around Emmanuel Macron and the Prime Minister of New-Zealand, Ms Jacinda Ardern.

A few years ago Denmark thought that the global influence of the major ICT companies (the “Gafas”) was so huge that they appointed an ambassador in Silicon Valley especially to maintain a dialogue with these companies. As the Danes point out, the financial capitalization of the four major ones (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) is bigger than the GDP of France. Appointing an ambassador there is tantamount to promoting these companies to quasi-States.
The discussions this ambassador has with these Gafas are similar to those President Macron had with Mark Zuckerberg : how to fight terrorism, how to tax AirBnB ?
Finally, States have to combat hackers, cyberattacks. In France, we created l’Agence nationale pour la Sécurité des Systèmes d’Information (ANSSI). During the 2017 presidential campaign, instructed by the American campaign the year before, ANSSI organised trainings on “digital hygiene” for the candidates and their teams. It worked well and those who tried hard, from abroad, to interfere in the process as they tried before in other western countries in order to promote the candidate or outcome of their choice, failed flatly.
We are also better equipped fighting together and this is why the European Union created a European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (based in Greece).

5. What is "softpower" today ? Also, how do you make a good look of your country, working abroad ?

As defined by the theorist Joseph Nye, soft power is the ability of a country to influence the actions of others without force or coercion. It is composed of a variety of things : classic diplomacy of course, political values, and culture, with Digital, Government, Culture, Enterprise, Education and Engagement as “sub-indexes” to measure it.

France enjoys a very high standard of soft power. According to the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, a reference center in this field, France came up 1st in 2017, after the election of Emmanuel Macron, and a very close 2nd in 2018, narrowly after the United Kingdom. What mostly makes up France’s soft power strength is global engagement, due to its vast diplomatic network. It is unrivalled in its membership to multilateral and international organisations, has the highest number of cultural missions abroad and ranks 5th in the world of ODA (Official Development Aid) donors.

Lately, French diplomacy was particularly efficient in two fields : humanitarian diplomacy and climate change diplomacy. Both are major achievements or our ministry of Foreign Affairs, which we can be proud of. In humanitarian affairs we started several decades ago with our famous NGOs Médecins sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde. Recently in 2006, on a French initiative an international organisation, Unitaid, funded by a tax on air tickets, helps funding affordable medicines against pandemics (malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS…). Its results have been most encouraging at lowering the price of the treatments against these illnesses.

After the Paris Conference on Climate change in 2015, the Paris agreement is the first universally signed treaty by which all the countries of the World committed to reduce their gas emissions to try and reduce global warming.

France also performs well in the Culture sub-index, posting strong performances across art, film, food, sport, and tourism metrics. With the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, and a plethora of museums, galleries, and UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is no surprise that France also boasts the highest number of international tourist arrivals in the world. As such, France’s deep cultural wealth remains an invaluable soft power asset. In 2017, France’s soft power saw a considerable boost on the heels of the election of the energetic, reforming, and globally-minded President Emmanuel Macron. President Macron’s digital savvy continues to benefit French soft power, as measured in the Digital sub-index, as it climbs further up to second place, overtaking the UK and Germany.

In this context, it is not difficult to “make a good look” of my country working abroad. No need to cheat of make it up : just advertising my country in details, in fairness, in every single aspect of what my Russian friends want to know is what I do, and what works better./.

publié le 29/05/2019

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