Jean Leonetti is a cardiologist, a centrist MP, the deputy mayor of Antibes and France's new European affairs minister.
He was speaking to EurActiv France's Clémentine Forissier.
Were you surprised by your nomination to European affairs?
Being chosen to be a minister is always a surprise. But it's an honour to serve one's country at this level of responsibility and it's a real opportunity to work in European affairs, particularly beside Alain Juppé, for whom I've a great deal of friendship and admiration.
Could you tell us about your concrete experience of Europe?
Everyone knows I was a doctor. Some have even held it against me! But it was during my career and in working on bioethics that I realised that there was a European consciousness. Peoples are at once what history made of them and at the same time what they bring to each other.
If you look through their attitude towards bioethics, the French position does not resemble that of the Netherlands, but it is very close, for example, to that of Germany. This shared consciousness and these exchanges are part of the European consciousness.
France, and it isn't alone in this, is today opposed to the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area. Will you continue carrying this message?
We have always said that we wanted these two countries to enter Schengen in a secure way, in steps. France is deeply attached to the free movement of people in the Schengen area. But, to protect this space, secure external borders must be real. In exceptional situations where we are forced to urgently react, one has to get out of the naivety of the open space, and secure it.
Europe is turning its back on a period of naivety and is entering a period of realism. Our Bulgarian and Romanian friends have incidentally well understood this evolution and we work together, in full confidence, to achieve their integration into Schengen.
The Schengen area allows citizens to circulate freely in the EU. To limit this possibility is rather a step backwards…
We are not restricting this liberty, we are reinforcing it. I live on the Côte d'Azur. In my constituency, there is the technopole of Sophia Antipolis in which 62 countries are economically present. This place is open to the world.
At the same time, when illegal migrants massively cross the Italian border at Ventimiglia, Schengen loses credibility.
The budget proposed by the European Commission for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2014-2020 is a decrease of about 16% if we take inflation into account. Will France fight so that an effort is made on agriculture in the future EU budget?
We do not accept a 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework which does include the maintenance of the CAP. In saying this, we are not defending the interests of Frenchmen but of Europeans. Volatility in the agricultural markets and the security problems of foodstuffs force Europe to meet its own needs.
It is not possible to want to fight against the deindustrialisation of Europe and at the same time let go of a whole field of economic activity, which counts thousands of jobs, and especially an exceptional know-how.
In this context, it's somewhat regrettable that [food] aid to the most underprivileged was contested for purely judicial reasons. We need to find again this generosity, whether this is in the framework of the CAP or another policy. I've made this known to my German counterpart who, I think, favourably welcomed our position.
A struggle is underway between the government and the regions on the future of regional policy in the EU budget. Are you opposed to the creation of a new category of beneficiary regions for European funds, as proposed by the European Commission?
It is an idea to explore. But first we need to evaluate the policy of the EU, and in particular regional policy. About 20 regions in Europe have achieved the convergence objectives. Must we continue the aid policy even when its goals are reached?
I don't see why we would put into question one of the pillars of European policy like the CAP, or the rebates or cohesion policy. Why should there a priori need to be a 5% increase in the EU budget? The crisis has changed things. Europe was a bit too lax, confident in its future; it must now be more realistic.
We prefer to spend better rather than spend more. Europe's credibility depends on this. It is the only way to give confidence again to the peoples of Europe. How could we imagine that the EU significantly increases its budget while at the same time advising austerity to the peoples of Europe, and as the member states are making budgetary efforts?
The Commission is proposing to increase the EU budget, not by increasing the contributions of the states but by putting in place, for example, a tax on financial transactions. Why not share this message with the French?
We are not opposed to a tax on financial transactions. But it must come while reducing the effort of the states for the EU budget. We shouldn't refrain ourselves from targeting and financing future expenditure, but this must not be used as an excuse for an increase of the budget.
The Élysée and the finance ministry are working to manage the sovereign debt crisis. How do you see your role within the government on this issue?
Our currency is being attacked, but no-one will leave the euro zone, because it isn't in the interests of any country. It is the debts of the states which are currently experiencing difficulties, not the euro. The euro is on the contrary a help to these countries.
I have the honour of being France's voice outside [the country] in Europe and the voice of Europe inside France. Outside, I try to defend French positions and to convince others that they are legitimate.
Inside, I am going to work to correct some fundamental errors peddled by Eurosceptics and insist on the fact that one must not confuse the one who is saving you with the one who is killing you.
What can be, according to you, the place of Europe in the upcoming presidential campaign?
In all campaigns, we speak badly of Europe.
Especially at the UMP sometimes…
Everywhere. But the crisis highlights the fact that Europe is indispensable to the interest of the peoples and the states. The president of the Republic has shown that Europe is not a handicap but a tool, an advantage and a hope.
The French Presidency of the EU in 2008 was a turning point. It allowed us to leave behind a certain guilty naivety towards a constructive realism. Europe, supposedly impotent, has become more active on the international scene and has made progress on real issues thanks to the climate-energy package or the European Pact on Immigration.
I am not saying that 'reverse qualified majority voting' in the context of economic governance is not a real issue. But it doesn't frankly and directly move our compatriots. On the other hand, to talk to the Germans about the defence of their currency, to the French about immigration, that is finally speaking concretely about Europe.
No-one will accept a European project that is not comprehensible for the citizens.