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Europe

'Europe for Dummies': Macron's cabinet picks are an overture to Brussels and Berlin

© Philippe Wojazer, Pool/AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron (2-L) and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (L) leave after posing for a family photo after the first cabinet meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris, France, May 18, 2017.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-05-19

The government named by Emmanuel Macron, France’s new heart-on-his-sleeve Europhile president, once again pointedly emphasised the pride of place the European project will receive in his new administration.

Macron set Europhile hearts aflutter on Election Night with the European Union's anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, part of his victory march to the stage at the Louvre Museum. He might have struck up the same band again on Thursday morning as ministers named fewer than 24 hours earlier arrived for their first cabinet meeting.

The nudges and winks to Brussels – and perhaps more pointedly to Berlin – are clear in Macron’s choice of EU veterans and German speakers. After naming Edouard Philippe, a German-speaker who finished high school in Bonn in 1988, as his prime minister on Monday, Macron selected near-perfect German speakers for Finance and Defence.

New Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire spoke to his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schauble, on his very first day in office on Wednesday and scheduled a meeting for next Monday morning in Berlin, from which the Franco-German pair will travel onward to Brussels together for Le Maire’s first European meeting of finance ministers.

A poached catch from the conservative Les Républicains party, the 48-year-old Le Maire began his career as a diplomat and then served as foreign affairs minister and then agriculture minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy. He was Dominique de Villepin’s chief of staff when the flamboyant Frenchman, then-foreign affairs minister, made his historic 2003 speech at the United Nations Security Council against the war in Iraq.

Unlike some key figures in Le Maire’s former party -- Les Républicains kicked Le Maire out on Wednesday after he joined Macron’s cabinet – France’s new finance chief is an unabashed Europhile. “I share with the president of the Republic the profound conviction going back years that nothing great will happen in Europe without a solid Franco-German friendship,” he said on Wednesday. “It is time for the EU and the euro zone in particular to give themselves that coherence, that power to face up to the power of China, Russia and the United States.”

Le Maire’s conservative political stripe will also reassure European partners – and, again, Berlin in particular; early enthusiasm in Germany for the European integrationist Macron’s May 7 election win over Europhobe populist Marine Le Pen quickly gave way in some quarters to worries about whether the Frenchman’s ultimate success might somehow require Germany to loosen its own purse-strings.

French budgetary discipline – often promised, far more rarely delivered -- is also seen as a critical means of gaining the confidence of Macron’s new counterparts across the bloc. As such, it bears noting that both of the conservatives that Macron cherrypicked for his cabinet have been posted to economic roles. Gérald Darmanin, 34, a onetime Sarkozy protégé, signed on as budget minister.

Meanwhile, under Macron, the foreign minister’s official title has been changed to Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, inverting – semantically, at least – a time-honoured order of priorities.

The rookie French president, who has made a mission of political renewal, resisted the temptation to name a newcomer to the foreign role and went with a steady hand in Jean-Yves Le Drian. A rare popular figure in François Hollande’s cabinet, Le Drian lasted through the Socialist ex-president’s full five-year term as defence minister.

Under Le Drian, European Affairs has been entrusted to the centrist Marielle de Sarnez, a veteran European politician and specialist who has been elected to the EU Parliament since 1999.

Macron’s new defence minister, Sylvie Goulard, for her part, literally wrote “Europe for Dummies,” or at least its French version, “L’Europe pour les Nuls”. A polyglot Europe specialist and twice-elected member of the European Parliament, the centrist Goulard speaks four languages fluently (French, Italian, German and English). She began her career in France’s foreign ministry in 1989 working on the German reunification portfolio. Later in Brussels, Goulard was political advisor to a European Commission president, Romano Prodi, from 2001 to 2004. She has also taught at Belgium’s prestigious College of Europe in Bruges.

Pundits had expected Goulard to join the government as foreign minister, but the fact she was named at defence sends a strong signal that Macron is serious about his campaign pledge to orchestrate more European integration on security and defence issues.

“This is a strong European signal,” François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters. “Sylvie Goulard is a professional European, which can only mean one thing – that European defence is one of the priorities.”

The new glut of German-speaking Europhiles at the peak of power in France join similarly inclined Macron associates out of the public eye. Career diplomat Philippe Etienne, Macron’s diplomatic “sherpa” inside the Elysée Palace, was most recently France’s ambassador to Berlin after five years in Brussels. Macron’s speechwriter, Sylvain Fort, has translated 18th-century German Romantic Friedrich Schiller’s plays.

But the new French president knows that before he can act, in earnest, on turning his campaign platform into policy in France, he will need a majority in legislative elections next month. For all its strategic usefulness, Macron’s savvy cherrypicking – the conservative Le Maire and the Socialist Le Drian are respected figures in their respective camps – is surely also designed to deliver tactically on that score as well, piquing the interest potential defectors from rival parties and that of voters alike.

If it works, Macron may find himself with a once-farfetched majority of lawmakers – and a new reason to hum an "Ode to Joy".

Date created : 2017-05-18

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