Bruno Le Maire

A Familiar Face in Berlin

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He knows how Germans tick. Picture source: Reuters.

A colorful government comprised of ministers from both ends of the political spectrum – that was the campaign promise of France’s new President Emmanuel Macron. But it appears he prefers to play it safe when it comes to the most important positions in his new government. Mr. Macron has appointed political veterans, well versed in diplomacy and known also across the country’s eastern border, in Germany.

He named his oldest friend and supporter, 69-year-old Gérard Collomb, interior minister; in times of terrorism, a key appointment. Jean-Yves Le Drian, who served as defense minister in the previous administration under François Hollande, and who is well known on the right and the left, will lead the foreign ministry. And the influential economics and finance ministry will be led by conservative lawmaker Bruno Le Maire.

Few French politicians know their way around Berlin as well as the 48-year-old Mr. Le Maire. He served as Nicolas Sarkozy’s European and agriculture minister. In both capacities, he cooperated closely with his German colleagues, always without the need for an interpreter.

Mr. Le Maire describes himself as a great fan of German literature and speaks German fluently. While his appearance makes the graduate of the elite French ENA school appear somewhat stiff, Mr. Le Maire has shown a fine sense of humor on several occasions.

“France needs to reform itself in order to, jointly with Germany, re-exert its bigger weight.”

Bruno Le Maire, French Finance Minister

Contrary to his party colleagues, Mr. Le Maire has never attempted to win approval by bashing his German neighbors. Instead, Mr. Le Maire is a firebrand European, experienced with the EU’s procedures and its institutions. “France needs to reform itself in order to, jointly with Germany, re-exert its bigger weight,” he has said.

But just as much as he defends European values, he passionately fights to ensure France’s sovereignty. In the primary election of the conservative party in November 2016, he proposed an overhaul of euro-zone finances that would dial back today’s level of collaboration.

It stands to reason that, if it were up to Mr. Le Maire himself, the new French president’s plans for European integration would be implemented in a lighter fashion. Mr. Macron has made no secret of his fervent support for the European Union. At a joint press conference on Tuesday, on the French president’s first trip abroad to Berlin, he and Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a “historic reconstruction of Europe” and “a very close collaboration” between both countries.

Mr. Macron also has put forward key demands for further euro-zone integration, including a common budget of the common currency area and a dedicated euro-zone parliament. Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is not too enthused by the thought. In an interview with Italian La Repubblica last week, he called Mr. Macron’s suggestion unrealistic, instead proposing a “pragmatic” strengthening of the euro zone.

Mr. Le Maire will like the sound of those words. When it comes to financial policy, his position falls in line with German orthodoxy. He wants to lower the ratio of state expenditures, measured against gross domestic product, and pushes for lower taxes.

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Paris. hanke@handelsblatt.com

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