PARIS — On the world stage, French President Emmanuel Macron has stressed cooperation and a can-do attitude. But, behind the scenes, the office that drives his foreign policy stands accused of a hostile and dysfunctional work environment.
The Elysée Palace has hired external consultants to investigate the work of the office, known as the diplomatic cell, where two advisers in the team of less than a dozen were placed on long-term sick leave by their doctors over the past year.
Officials and diplomats interviewed by POLITICO spoke of burnouts and a siege mentality inside the cell. They also alleged that the cell has at times undermined Macron’s foreign policy through poor coordination with — or a hostile attitude toward — other parts of the French administration, foreign governments and the diplomatic community in Paris.
The allegations center on Macron’s diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, and his deputy, Alice Rufo. They range from verbal abuse, barrages of aggressive emails, backstabbing and blackballing others in the president’s office.
Bonne, a former ambassador to Lebanon, and Rufo, a career civil servant, deny these charges wholesale, Elysée officials said. They declined to comment on the record for this article, which is based on conversations with a dozen French officials with direct knowledge of the situation as well as foreign diplomats serving in Paris.
The Elysée ordered the external investigation after the second adviser was put on indefinite sick leave at the end of the summer.
“Signs were reported of the existence of potential difficulties tied to workload and we are looking to understand their origin to find ways to improve,” an Elysée official said after the investigation was launched.
The firm conducting the investigation has submitted preliminary findings, which have not been made public. A final report is still to come, officials said.
The investigation — which the Elysée calls an “audit” of the cell — is a highly unusual move in French government, indicating the issues go far beyond the gossip and rivalries common in the corridors of power worldwide.
Macron is said to be aware of the strain, according to four officials who said they have discussed the matter with him. Two of those officials said he is considering whether to keep Bonne and Rufo on.
But one Elysée official suggested the pair feel they are protected by their close relationship with the president. “Bonne and Rufo feel like they have a license to bully and harass with a sense of full impunity,” the official said.
Foreign ambassadors and other diplomats in Paris have complained about what they describe as “rude” and “arrogant” treatment by Bonne and Rufo, and their difficulty in getting them to return calls, respond to text messages or schedule a meeting. (Bonne denies he ever refused to meet with any G20 ambassador, Elysée officials said.)
“Ambassadors are 100 percent tired of the Elysée and its rudeness and they won’t be doing any favors in their capitals for Macron,” said an ambassador of a G20 country.
“It has done tremendous damage to the Elysée’s relationship with the diplomatic community,” the ambassador said, adding that these difficulties are openly discussed among ambassadors in Paris. Other ambassadors backed up that account.
The ambassador described an incident in which a senior official from their foreign ministry had taken a long flight to Paris for a visit that included a meeting with Bonne, scheduled two months in advance. With less than 24 hours’ notice, Bonne’s office notified the ambassador’s office he needed to postpone.
A terse text message exchange, seen by POLITICO, ensued, in which Bonne told the ambassador that he serves the French president, who had requested his presence at the original meeting time.
A new meeting was eventually scheduled. But the ambassador said Bonne was unpleasant enough that the visiting official took note and told the ambassador: “We keep our moral high ground — we don’t respond to it but we remember it.”
Frustrations with the cell have also boiled over within the French diplomatic network.
Since the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, foreign policy has been primarily the domain of the French head of state, with the foreign minister playing second fiddle. That gives the diplomatic cell at the Elysée exceptional sway over the course of foreign affairs. Under various administrations, this has often led to strains and turf wars with the foreign ministry.
However, long-serving French diplomats say the current situation is extraordinary.
A French diplomatic cable dated March 26, 2020, seen by POLITICO, said meetings at the Elysée undercut France’s diplomatic messaging ahead of a videoconference earlier that month with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, involving Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
According to the cable, France’s messaging was “muddled” by two seemingly contradictory meetings that Turkish Ambassador Ismail Hakki Musa had at the Elysée, one with Bonne and the other with the Elysée’s top official, Secretary-General Alexis Kohler. Elysée officials declined to comment.
Talk of turmoil
Word of turmoil in the Elysée’s diplomatic cell has circulated for months within the presidential administration and government, with many people asking how such a working environment was allowed to develop. Talk of trouble at the cell intensified after one adviser, Claire Thuaudet, was placed on sick leave earlier this year.
Thuaudet served as global affairs adviser, overseeing issues including climate and health. She officially left the cell on March 4, just as the coronavirus pandemic emerged as a major threat. The post remained vacant as the pandemic grew around the world, until a replacement was named in August. Thuaudet now serves as the director of the French Institute in Italy.
After another adviser, Teymouraz Gorjestani, responsible for the Americas and Asia, was put on sick leave by his doctor, the external investigation was ordered at the end of August.
Officials who know Thuaudet and Gorjestani describe them as having been traumatized by their time at the diplomatic cell. They declined to comment on the record for this article.
French management style tends to be harsher than in countries such as the United States. Many French people are raised on a regimen of tough love, with the emphasis often on the “tough.” Harsh criticism is believed necessary to push students and employees to excellence.
Macron himself is often described by officials who have worked closely with him as a “Darwinian” — espousing a survival-of-the fittest approach among his team. And burnouts are not unheard of in French foreign policy posts, including at the foreign ministry.
Officials who know Thuaudet and Gorjestani though, said they thrived in previous high-pressure jobs.
“Teymouraz Gorjestani was the best I had in my team, Claire Thuaudet is wonderful and very hard-working,” said a former diplomatic official with a reputation for being tough who worked with both.
Thuaudet worked in the office of then-Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was known as a demanding boss. Gorjestani served at the French Mission to the United Nations in New York, where the workload can be heavy and scrutiny is high.
Current and former Elysée officials who witnessed outbursts in the cell described instances where Rufo lost her temper, yelling at, disparaging and undercutting colleagues for not doing a task as she had envisioned. Rufo denies this was the case, Elysée officials said.
Officials also described an environment in which Bonne and Rufo would yell at subordinates to the point of reducing them to tears, order staff to redo work over and over again while changing their instructions or failing to provide necessary information.
Multiple officials with first-hand knowledge of the situation said Bonne and Rufo blocked a planned appointment of Thuaudet to the post of consul general in San Francisco and gave subordinates the sense they had the power to destroy their careers in the French diplomatic service.
A presidency official close to the situation disputed that notion. “None of the people who left had their careers hindered,” the official said.
Strife has also flared between Bonne and Rufo, according to multiple officials. Three said Rufo told colleagues that Bonne needs to be replaced. The presidency declined to comment.
‘Brain death’ backlash
Beyond these personnel issues, some French officials complained that the cell failed to prepare diplomats to deal with the huge international backlash against Macron’s description last year of NATO as experiencing “brain death.”
Two or three weeks before the remarks were published in the Economist, the cell had the transcript of the interview, according to two officials privy to the information.
They said concerns were raised at two weekly meetings of the cell about the effect Macron’s comment might have, though no one predicted the subsequent firestorm. During that time, neither Bonne nor Rufo gave instructions to their subordinates on how to handle any backlash, the officials said.
The presidency official close to the situation dismissed such criticism, saying “I do not recall meetings during which anyone warned of anything.”
“The fact is the objective of the president was fulfilled,” the official added, in reference to Macron’s desire to give NATO a kind of diplomatic electric shock ahead of its December 2019 summit in London.
Other officials said relevant people at the foreign ministry were only informed of the contents of the interview a couple of days before publication, or even later.
Leaving diplomats in the dark might have been a deliberate choice by Macron, who publicly warned French ambassadors in 2019 not to try to undercut his disruptive policies and spoke of the “deep state” in a speech at the foreign ministry.
But the lack of a timely heads-up angered French officials and diplomats, who were left scrambling for talking points and ill-equipped to defend Macron to baffled allies.
A second Elysée official close to the situation said the effect of Macron’s message had been anticipated and the diplomatic cell spoke to the foreign ministry “immediately.” But the official would not specify how far ahead of publication the ministry was notified.
The two officials also sought to play down any enmity between the cell and the foreign ministry.
“The foreign ministry is a ministry with a mission, with people who are passionate about their job,” the first official said. The official said that sometimes presidency requests to the ministry go unanswered but said this “doesn’t matter,” adding that every adviser in the cell has a weekly coordination lunch with counterparts at the ministry.
Bonne and Rufo are outsiders of sorts from the usual pool of candidates for their positions.
Rufo, who is a pure product of elite French institutions with degrees from the country’s three most prestigious social sciences and politics universities, has never served in an embassy abroad. She is also only 40 and the first woman to hold such a high level position in the cell.
Bonne did not attend such elite schools, but specialized in the Middle East, doing fieldwork, learning Arabic, Turkish and Farsi and serving in some of the most complex diplomatic posts including in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Lebanon as well as at the United Nations.
They both served in then-President François Hollande’s diplomatic cell, in lower positions, and met Macron when he was then deputy secretary-general of the Elysée.
Since the investigation into the cell was revealed, officials at the presidency close to the situation have pushed back increasingly aggressively against the accusations.
They have pointed to the leadership role France has played on the international scene under Macron while dismissing the complaints as internal score-settling.
“Beware of rumors, unless you want to participate in a targeted campaign,” one of those officials said. “The main reproach one can make of diplomats is that they are tattletales.”
Under Bonne’s leadership, the diplomatic cell has had to navigate extremely turbulent waters on the international scene, handling a once-in-a-century global pandemic, an ever-more belligerent Turkey, complex relationships with Russia and China and a U.S. level of disengagement with Europe not seen since before World War II.
It has handled these issues with less than a dozen advisers — a small fraction of the roughly 100 staff that are part of the U.S. National Security Council, its closest equivalent.
The cell has shepherded a series of high-profile French initiatives, coming as close as anyone to brokering a deal between the U.S. and Iran and hosting a G7 summit that won Macron widespread praise for his management of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Yet even though France and its president have their highest international profile in decades, French officials say diplomats have refused to take up the usually highly sought-after positions that have become vacant within the diplomatic cell.
Presidency officials close to the situation deny that is the case, noting the recruitment at the end of August of a new adviser on Turkey and continental Europe, Isabelle Dumont — a Turkish-speaking former ambassador to Ukraine and Cyprus — and a new adviser on global affairs, Olivier Ray, who led the French Development Agency in Lebanon.
“I find it unfair when I read that this team has problems recruiting,” one of the presidency officials said. “The team is doing its job, working. It’s not pleasant to hear that there are recruitment problems for those who just got recruited.”
However, two other vacancies have yet to be filled — the posts of Europe adviser and strategic affairs adviser. Alexandre Adam, a technical adviser on Europe, is expected to step up to take the Europe job, which he has been filling in an acting capacity.
Rufo herself is expected to take on the strategic affairs post, according to officials, in a move that would give her more formal influence in the cell.
Neither Bonne nor Rufo is planning to resign, according to officials.