Veteran diplomat Catherine Colonna takes over as head of struggling French foreign ministry

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When French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his new government this week, the list included known heavyweights, newcomers and figures from left and right. Among them was career diplomat Catherine Colonna – a former ambassador to the UK and only the second woman to take charge of the Foreign Office file – who inherits a host of complicated issues, from deteriorating relations with the former French colony of Mali in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. .

As his newly re-elected administration faces multiple challenges on the world stage, French President Emmanuel Macron has chosen Catherine Colonna, 66, as the country’s top diplomat to replace another outgoing veteran – Jean-Yves Le Drian, who led the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017 -2022) after a five-year term as Minister of Defence. Colonna is best known in France as the spokesperson for former President Jacques Chirac, a position she held for nearly a decade.

Only the second woman to hold the post, Colonna is a career diplomat with a wealth of experience who inherits a variety of complicated files, including the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, deteriorating relations with the former colony of Mali and the often troubled post-Brexit negotiations. with the UK on top of pressing global issues like climate change and Covid-19.

A pro-European herself, Colonna has served as France’s ambassador to London since 2018, at a particularly difficult time for Franco-British relations due to tensions over Brexit, fishing rights and immigration. In a highly unusual move, she was summoned by the UK government in October 2021 as Paris and London clashed over fishing rights in the English Channel.

In his last official tweet as ambassador to the UK on Friday, she said she “wanted to thank everyone who understood that we are friends of this country and will continue to work for a better future”.

A “compatriot” at heart

Prior to London, Colonna held various positions in Washington and Brussels before being appointed France’s representative to UNESCO and then ambassador to Italy (2014-2017).

She is “simple in human relations, hardworking and very demanding,” a source close to her told Reuters.

Born in the Centre-Val de Loire region, Colonna grew up on a farm run by her Corsican father. In a 2004 interview with the French daily Liberation, she called herself a “compatriot” at heart, someone “pragmatic and who likes to work the land”.

The left-leaning publication describes her as “a fine little Republic soldier.”

>> In pictures: the faces of the new French government

A “left heart”

Colonna is best known as spokesperson for the late President Jacques Chirac, a position she held for nine years (1995-2004) – an unusually long tenure for such a position – including when France opposed the 2003 US-led war in Iraq. According to Liberation, visitors to the Elysée sometimes saw Chirac looking for her when he forgot a name or a detail.

Although she served under the conservative Chirac from 1995 to 2004 – an appointment which “stunned” her, as she told Liberation – she has a “rather left-wing heart”. She returned to government as Deputy Minister for European Affairs from 2005 to 2017, under Prime Minister (and longtime friend) Dominique de Villepin.

Then-President Jacques Chirac talks to spokesperson Catherine Colonna during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s official visit to Paris, July 3, 1999. © Georges Gobet, AFP

Anger of the diplomatic corps

For now, however, she is tasked with dealing with the wrath of the diplomatic corps, whose unions have called a strike – only the second in their history – from June 2 against Macron’s proposals to reform the service. diplomatic. Among his reforms is the abolition of a special status for senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which would see them integrated into a wider pool of civil servants.

Colonna’s appointment may signal that Macron is seeking to appease those in the Foreign Office. During a handover ceremony with her predecessor Le Drian on Saturday, the new foreign minister assured diplomats that they had her “full confidence”.

“We need each and every one of you. You can count on me to never forget who I am or where I come from…you have my complete trust,” she said in a brief speech. “Let’s get to work, together.”

“She will be appreciated at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She will be able to reassure them at a time when the ministry is facing doubts and uncertainties about the end of the diplomatic corps,” Jean de Gliniasty, former ambassador to Russia, told AFP. .

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not in a good psychological state.”

As the head of French diplomacy, she will work closely with center-right lawmaker Sébastien Lecornu, a close ally of Macron, who takes over as defense minister.

In his farewell speech on Saturday, his predecessor Le Drian summarized at the Quai d’Orsay some of the challenges awaiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: the war in Ukraine, the jihadist threat and an increasingly “brutalizing” world.

For his part, Colonna said he assumed his new mission “with humility, determination and conviction” while noting that a lot of effort will be needed to “mitigate the disorders of the world” of which Le Drian spoke.

New Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna kisses former <a class=French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian after the handover ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Paris, Saturday May 21, 2022.” srcset=”” sizes=”” loading=”lazy” class=”m-figure__img lazy”/>
New Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna kisses former French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian after the handover ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Paris, Saturday May 21, 2022. © Christophe Petit Tesson, AP

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