After centuries during which working methods had hardly changed, the days after the revolutions in 1848 were the starting point for a period of rapid change marked by the speeding up of the historical process and of technical progress.
Moving to the Quai d’Orsay represented more than just a change of address. For the first time, a Ministry was being established in purpose built premises, which for the period, were relatively functional.
A short time later the telegraph appeared. The Embassy was connected to the Department in real time. The conditions in which the profession was exercised were transformed as they would never be later, even by the advents of typewriting (1890), the telephone (end of the century) and automatic encryption from 1950. It was not until computerisation in the 1980s and the advent of today’s new technologies that any similar transformation was seen.
Political and commercial, it is all connected: “an antiquated and affected distinction” report by Bertholet, future Secretary General, 1907.
In 1877, the Republic embarked upon updating its recruitment methods in the Quai d’Orsay, which, in a Europe that was almost completely dominated by monarchies, had continued to be fairly aristocratically based. A competitive entrance examination was instituted, which was as difficult as those for the other major administrative bodies, but left a place for co-opting, meaning the selection of the new by the old. A new organisational structure separated political and commercial into two departments, which until then had been dealt with by the department of consular affairs. Thirty years later, a large department of political and commercial affairs was created with geographic subdivisions.
After the 1914 war, new services appeared that responded to new tasks: the press, cultural works, forerunner of the future department of cultural relations, the League of Nations. In 1920, the growing need for co-ordination led to making the Secretary General, which had appeared during the war, part of the institution; he exercised a senior management function overseeing "all the services" (decree of 21 January 1920). In 1945, the Ministry re-adopted the distinction between political and commercial affairs (except between 1951 and 1959). The directorate general of cultural relations was added followed by other services that corresponded to the new realities: pacts (administration of military alliances), disarmament, and later, economic European co-operation. In practice, the proliferation of functional services gave rise to fears about the consistency of policy in relation to each country. In the major reforms of 1976-1978, this resulted in a return to geographic divisions.
Current situation: The current organisational structure in force is the result of the decree of 10 December 1998.
The geographic divisions in the political department have been separated. They are responsible for all bilateral affairs, whether political or economic, for the countries they are responsible for, with the right to be informed about cultural affairs. The political department and the economic department concentrate on multilateral affairs.
The reform of 1993 brought European affairs and economic affairs together in the same directorate general, and included bilateral affairs of those European countries not members of the community, known as "continental". It quickly transpired that it was not the best way of co-ordinating the European and economic aspects. In 1998, this directorate general disappeared: separate departments deal with the economic and financial affairs and the affairs of the European Community and candidate countries.
The organisation of the Ministry has always oscillated between geographic and functional criteria. Logic has to give way to pragmatism and to the need to continuously adapt to changes in the international scene.