Sacking of French foreign ministry’s Mideast chief shocks diplomats

PARIS — It’s the sacking that has French diplomats and their foreign counterparts in Paris bewildered and buzzing.

The head of the French foreign ministry’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) section, Christophe Farnaud, was suddenly replaced on October 13, without any official explanation.

Details on what exactly happened are scarce. But several French diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue, said that the decision was made by President Emmanuel Macron and is seen as a way to put the diplomatic system on notice.

Macron has had a turbulent relationship with the foreign ministry. In a speech before his corps of ambassadors in 2019, the president declared that France had a “deep state” and warned them to fall in line and implement his vision, especially when it came to warming relations with Russia.

Farnaud’s brief included countries such as Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Syria, where Macron has attempted high-profile — and high-risk — initiatives that have yielded mixed results at best.

Multiple officials said Farnaud was reluctant to implement Macron’s initiatives. Farnaud himself declined to comment, noting via email that he was not allowed to talk to the press as a senior civil servant.

He referred questions — submitted by POLITICO by email — to the foreign ministry’s press service, which offered no comment. The Elysée Palace declined to comment.

The lack of clarity over the sacking, coupled with its abruptness, was perceived by half a dozen diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity as a deliberately brutal choice by Macron to assert his authority over the system.

Diplomats said the sacking may be a preview of how Macron intends to staff the foreign ministry’s top-level jobs if he is re-elected next April, with more political appointees who are loyal to his vision. French diplomats are already concerned by a planned overhaul of the civil service, which would include ambassadorial positions.

Some officials have pondered whether Farnaud’s management style was a factor in his removal. Three French diplomatic officials said a report was filed in recent weeks with more than a dozen complaints about his behavior. Several diplomats who have worked with him over the years corroborated reports of a terse management style.

But other diplomats dismissed this hypothesis. They noted Farnaud was appointed MENA director in 2019, under Macron’s presidency, even though he had faced action over similar accusations in a previous posting.

These diplomats also highlighted that Macron did not sack his diplomatic adviser or his deputy diplomatic adviser, who were both accused of bullying and harassment and were the subject of a review by an external firm in 2020. Both denied the accusations.

Farnaud has been replaced as MENA director by Anne Gueguen, an experienced, well-respected and high-ranking diplomat who served as No. 2 at the French permanent representation to the U.N. in New York and had been serving as deputy secretary-general of the ministry until her appointment.

She takes over a difficult brief, weeks before France will host an international summit on Libya on November 12, and in the midst of a severe diplomatic crisis with Algeria.

French diplomats gathered last Friday evening in the grand dining room at the foreign ministry to bid Farnaud farewell. The invitation sent by the secretary-general of the foreign ministry, François Delattre, did not provide any hints on what he will do next.

Despite being dismissed from his previous post, Farnaud remains a senior civil servant.

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