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French diplomats strike Monday over cuts

PARIS, Nov 27 (AFP) – French diplomats around the world are being urged to stage their first ever strike on Monday to protest against cost-cutting which recently saw the foreign ministry in Paris run out of paper.

Unions representing the Quai d’Orsay’s 9,200 permanent staff complain that as a result of the ministry’s parlous financial situation jobs are being cut, foreign travel tightly restricted, cultural programmes axed, and allowances and pay bonuses pared to a minimum.

“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,” six unions said in a statement.

“It’s all very well (Foreign Minister) Dominique de Villepin making France’s distinct position felt on Iraq, but what good is that if you can’t even pay for a plane ticket to represent the country at an international conference,” said a diplomat quoted in Le Parisien newspaper.

The lack of resources was embarrassingly exposed last month when the company that supplies the ministry with paper refused to make a new delivery till its account was cleared. Staff were deprived of writing materials for three days and European Affairs Minister Noelle Lenoir had to buy her own note-pads.

“There isn’t a kopeck at the ministry. Half of the lifts are out of order because there’s no money to mend them. During the paper shortage we had to bar people from the photocopier.

Abroad staff are working up to 14 hours a day,” said Yvan Sergesse of the UNSA union.

Diplomats say that ambassadors are now expected to pay for much of their entertaining out of their own pockets, while some EUR 20 million (USD 23.8 million) are to be removed from foreign housing allowances in next year’s budget.

From its lavish 19th century palace looking over the river Seine, 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 the ministry is caught in the same financial bind as most of the rest of France’s large civil service, and in next year’s budget – which is being debated in the Senate Monday – it is committed to 116 job cuts and a reduction in running costs of two percent.

Officials are looking at potential savings, notably in Europe where an increasingly integrated and expanding EU makes the presence of nine consulates in Germany for example hard to justify. Cultural sections – the Alliances Francaises of foreign capitals – could be made to merge with consulates.

According to Le Parisien, President Jacques Chirac was himself disconcerted by the large number of diplomats who attended him on a recent visit to Washington.

“The foreign ministry has got to do its bit for the budgetary effort agreed by the whole of the government for 2004,” said a senior diplomat. “But we can still keep our essential fields of action to spread French influence and interests abroad.”

In next year’s budget the ministry is to get EUR 4.2 billion (USD 5 billion), or 1.25 percent of state spending. Unions say the number of posts has been reduced by ten percent in the last ten years. Currently there are 3,900 staff employed in Paris and 5,300 abroad.

Though there have been previous strikes at the ministry, this is the first time unions have called for a worldwide stoppage, including the estimated 13,000 local staff. A demonstration is to be held outside the Senate building at the Luxembourg gardens on Monday afternoon.


                                                                Subject: French news