French diplomats down pens

1st December 2003, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 1 (AFP) - Many French embassies, consulates and cultural centres around the world were shut or offering minimum service on Monday as diplomats staged their first ever strike to protest against foreign ministry budget cutbacks.

PARIS, Dec 1 (AFP) - Many French embassies, consulates and cultural centres around the world were shut or offering minimum service on Monday as diplomats staged their first ever strike to protest against foreign ministry budget cutbacks.

Turnout varied from country to country, with 90 percent of diplomatic staff in Italy observing the strike down to only 20 percent in Moscow. In many capitals, staff declared themselves officially on strike but continued to carry out their functions.

"In practically all our missions as well as here in the central administration the strike movement has been followed, but to varying degrees," said foreign ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous.

All 9,200 of the ministry's permanent employees, plus 6,000 teachers in French lycees abroad and several thousand locally-hired staff were urged to stop work for the day to demand an end to cost-cutting that recently saw the ministry run out of paper.

In Islamabad the embassy and consulate were both shut, as was the cultural centre in Damascus. In Beijing most diplomats were on strike, but stayed at work to coordinate the visits of two government ministers. In Jakarta, Renaud Vignal became the first ever ambassador to go on strike, though he was at his desk.

An official at the country's embassy in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Here we are too few to go on strike, but we share its aims. "In Paris a demonstration was planned during the afternoon at the Senate building in the Luxembourg gardens, where the ministry's 2004 budget is under discussion.

From its lavish 19th century palace on the Quai d'Orsay, France's foreign ministry oversees an international network second only to that of the United States. In addition to 154 embassies there are 98 consulates, and nearly 500 cultural offices and French-language schools.

However it is caught in the same financial bind as the rest of France's large civil service. Although in the budget it gets a small rise to EUR 4.2 billion (USD 5 billion), this is due to a big increase in foreign aid and masks a cut of two percent in running costs and 116 job losses.

The six unions behind the strike complain of stringent financial cutbacks, with cultural programmes axed, allowances and bonuses pared to a minimum, restrictions on foreign travel and basic maintenance work at the ministry and foreign embassies ignored.

"Employees do not understand how the president of the republic and the government can proclaim their grand ambitions for France on the international scene while at the same time the human and financial resources available to the ministry are constantly declining," the unions said in a statement.

The lack of resources was embarrassingly exposed last month when the company that supplies the ministry with paper refused to make a new delivery until its account was cleared, and union officials say many lifts in the building are out of order because of a lack of money to fix them.

On Thursday evening Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin - himself a career diplomat - took the unusual step of addressing a meeting of several hundred employees at the Quai d'Orsay, in which he conceded that circumstances were difficult and promised to give the strikers' grievances full consideration.

The Wall Street Journal, a right-wing US newspaper which has long opposed French policy on Iraq and other issues, welcomed the strike in a sarcastic editorial, saying: "The world deserves - nay, needs - less French diplomacy."

"We can only hope that everyone, from ambassadors down, catches the spirit of - as the French like to say - solidarite. Here's one French strike we can wholeheartedly support."

© AFP

                                                                Subject: French news

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