New Economy Minister is a political veteran

Mr Bruno Le Maire has worked under former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Francois Fillon.
Mr Bruno Le Maire has worked under former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Francois Fillon.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

French President Emmanuel Macron has put economic reform at the centre of his agenda for the next five years, and his choice of economy minister, free-marketeer Bruno Le Maire, indicates the direction he intends to take.

But the right-wing Mr Le Maire is very much a Macron man in other ways, too.

Mr Le Maire, 48, trained as a diplomat, has been close to power for much of his career, including working for centre-right politician Dominique de Villepin for six years, rising to become his chief of staff shortly after Mr de Villepin became prime minister.

Mr Le Maire is not without government experience. He was a minister in the last Republican administration of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, holding the office of Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fishing between 2009 and 2012. He also worked under then Prime Minister Francois Fillon, now better known as the Republican party's unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in this year's elections.

Mr Le Maire sought his own party's nomination to be a presidential candidate, only to be resoundingly defeated by Mr Fillon in the 2016 primary, polling only 2.4 per cent. Within a month, he had recast himself as being on Mr Fillon's side, becoming his "representative for European and international affairs". By March, he was out again, resigning with a statement that said the candidacy of scandal-plagued Mr Fillon was undermining the "credibility of politics", a fact that will have enamoured him to Mr Macron.

The move to Mr Macron's team means he has changed sides once again, becoming one of three Republicans to join Mr Macron's Cabinet, including Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, but Mr Le Maire is the more heavyweight of the two. His appointment is widely seen as an attempt by Mr Macron to appeal to the right, and in choosing the conservative Mr Le Maire, the new President is seeking to put clear blue water between himself and his predecessor, Mr Francois Hollande, in whose Socialist administration he was economy minister.

His appointment will be seen as an attempt to send a message to Germany that France is now serious about reforming its sclerotic and state-heavy economy in the face of Berlin's scepticism about Mr Macron's ability to lead change.

The Republicans are unimpressed. The party's chief campaigner, Mr Francois Baroin, accused Mr Macron of "putting a bomb under politics rather than remodelling it".

Born in the wealthy western Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Mr Le Maire is the son of an executive from oil company Total and the head of a group of private Catholic schools. Married to painter Pauline Doussau de Bazignan, with whom he has four children, he is a Member of Parliament for the Eure district in northern France.

But his focus is not entirely on politics. Mr Le Maire is also a prolific author, having written a number of fiction and non-fiction books, including an erotic novel written under the name Duc William.

Apart from his ability to woo Republican voters to Mr Macron's La Republique en Marche (Forward, the Republic), Mr Le Maire meets several of the characteristics that are emerging to be among what Mr Macron wants from his ministers.

Mr Le Maire, who also held a junior ministry as secretary of state for European affairs under Mr Sarkozy, is a right-leaning economic liberal and has called for the privatisation of France's labour exchanges, as well as for welfare caps.

Contradicting this, he welcomed the ongoing British withdrawal from the European Union on the basis that Britain was the key proponent of deregulation inside the bloc. In 2016, he called Brexit a "fabulous opportunity for France" and said "we have a historic obligation to regain the upper hand on European integration so we can take control of regulation again".

He also believes that seeing off the threat from Ms Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front party in next month's parliamentary elections requires a sense of national unity.

Mr Le Maire is a graduate of several of France's elite universities: the Ecole Normale Superieure, top political science school Sciences Po, and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which trains senior civil servants, including Mr Macron.

Finally, the German-speaking Mr Le Maire is a keen europhile, an attribute essential for any member of Mr Macron's Cabinet.

His appointment will be seen as an attempt to send a message to Germany that France is now serious about reforming its sclerotic and state-heavy economy in the face of Berlin's scepticism about Mr Macron's ability to lead change.

Jason Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'New Economy Minister is a political veteran'. Print Edition | Subscribe