Veteran diplomat Catherine Colonna takes the helm at France’s troubled foreign ministry

Veteran diplomat Catherine Colonna takes the helm at France’s troubled foreign ministry

Politics

When French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his new government this week, the list included known heavyweights, newcomers, and personalities from both the left and the right. Among them was career diplomat Catherine Colonna – a former ambassador to the UK and only the second woman to take up the foreign ministry dossier – who inherits a host of complicated issues, from deteriorating relations with former French colony Mali to responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As his newly re-elected administration faces multiple challenges on the world stage, French President Emmanuel Macron chose Catherine Colonna, 66, as the country’s top diplomat to replace another outgoing veteran – Jean-Yves Le Drian, who headed France’s foreign affairs ministry (2017-2022) after a five-year term as defence minister. Colonna is best known in France as former president Jacques Chirac’s spokeswoman, a post she held for almost a decade.

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

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

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

This was my last tweet as 🇨🇵 ambassador to the 🇬🇧. I wanted to thank everyone who understood we are friends of this country & will keep working for a better future. Heartfelt thanks for your warm welcome and best wishes to all, starting with my brilliant team @FranceintheUK 🙏 https://t.co/yv61bYhAy8

— Catherine Colonna (@MinColonna) May 20, 2022


A ‘countrywoman’ at heart

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

She is “simple when it comes to human relations, hard-working 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 French daily Libération she called herself “a countrywoman” at heart, someone who is “pragmatic and who likes to work the land”.   

The left-leaning publication described her as “a good little soldier of the Republic”.

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A ‘left-leaning heart’

Colonna is best known as late president Jacques Chirac‘s spokeswoman, a job she held for nine years (1995-2004) – an unusually long tenure for such a post – including when France opposed the 2003 US-led war in Iraq. According to Libération, visitors to the Elysée Palace would sometimes spot Chirac looking for her when he would forget a name or a detail. 

Although she served under the conservative Chirac from 1995 until 2004 – a nomination that “stunned” her, as she told Libération – she has a “rather left-leaning heart”. She returned to government as deputy minister for European affairs from 2005 until 2017, under then prime minister (and decades-long friend) Dominique de Villepin.


Then-president Jacques Chirac talks to spokeswoman Catherine Colonna during Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak's official visit to Paris, on July 3, 1999.
Then-president Jacques Chirac talks to spokeswoman Catherine Colonna during Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak’s official visit to Paris, on July 3, 1999. © Georges Gobet, AFP

Anger of the diplomatic corps

For now, however, she is tasked with facing down the wrath of the diplomatic corps, whose unions have called for a strike – only the second in their history –starting June 2 over Macron’s proposals to reform the diplomatic service. Among his reforms is scrapping a special status for senior foreign ministry officials that would see them integrated into a broader pool of civil servants.

Colonna’s appointment may signal that Macron is seeking to appease those at the foreign ministry. During a transfer of power 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 never to forget who I am or where I come from … you have my full confidence,” she said in a brief speech. “Let’s get to work, together.”  

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

“The foreign ministry is not in a good state psychologically.” 

As France’s top diplomat, she will work closely with centre-right lawmaker Sebastien Lecornu, a close ally of Macron, who takes over as defence minister.

In his farewell speech on Saturday, her predecessor Le Drian summed up some of the challenges ahead for the foreign ministry at Quai d’Orsay: the war in Ukraine, the jihadist threat and an increasingly “brutalising” world. 

For her part, Colonna said that she took up her new mission “with humility, determination and conviction” while noting that much effort will be needed to “alleviate the disorders of the world” of which Le Drian spoke.


Newly appointed Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna hugs former French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian leaving after the handover ceremony at Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, Saturday, May 21 May 2022.
Newly appointed Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna hugs former French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian leaving after the handover ceremony at Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, Saturday, May 21 May 2022. © Christophe Petit Tesson, AP

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