French President Emmanuel Macron revealed his substitute pick for France’s vacant European Commissioner slot on Thursday (24 October), naming former economy minister Thierry Breton. EURACTIV’s partner Ouest-France reports.
Two weeks after MEPs rejected Macron’s first pick, Sylvie Goulard, the French president, nominated Breton for the job, the government announced on Thursday (24 October).
Breton, 64, used to serve as economy minister in Jacques Chirac’s government and is now the CEO of IT multinational Atos.
“The French president has submitted his proposal to European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to appoint Thierry Breton as a member of the European Commission,” the French government said.
For the French government, the extensive portfolio, which would include industrial policy, the internal market, as well as issues relating to defence and space, needs to remain unchanged.
And the French president confirmed that von der Leyen had given him such an assurance.
“What matters to me is the portfolio! I fought for it,” the head of state said, in the wake of Goulard’s rejection on 10 October, which the French government perceived as a snub by the Parliament.
The future Commission president has already approved the new choice. Macron and von der Leyen “agreed on this profile after a preliminary discussion. If we are proposing this candidate, it is because it is appropriate,” the government added.
With his wide-reaching background, as well as his knowledge of the industry, Jacques Chirac’s friend ticks many boxes.
“Thierry Breton has solid skills in the fields covered by this portfolio, in particular, industry and digital technology, as he was the economy minister (under Jacques Chirac) between 2005 and 2007, with responsibility for the French industry. He has also been CEO of major industrial and defence groups (Thomson, France Telecom, Atos) and enjoys a solid reputation as a man of action,” the president pointed out.
He was appointed to take the reins of France Telecom when it was burdened with substantial debts. Breton got the group back on its feet by reducing its costs and contributed to its privatisation.
Breton is also ‘Macron-compatible’, as he aligns with the head of state’s positions and even supported his presidential candidacy before the first round of elections but after conservative Alain Juppé withdrew from the race.
“He is also a convinced European who has led many Franco-German projects,” the government added, particularly as he leads the Atos group which has part of its headquarters in Munich.
Breton is a strong advocate of the development in Europe of so-called ‘supercomputers’ capable of competing with products from China and the US.
As a bonus, he knows von der Leyen from her time as Germany’s defence minister. Together, they worked on the creation of a European Defence and Security Fund to boost European investment in these areas.
Breton is also a former elected official with experience in matters related to the portfolio and was the regional counsellor for the Poitou-Charentes region from 1988 to 1992.
Conflicts of interest
The new Commission has been postponed by at least one month and aims to take office on 1 December 2019. That will give time to France, Romania and Hungary, whose Commissioner candidates have all been rejected.
Macron did not wait until the last moment to decide and reviewed several potential candidates, including Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, EU advisor Clément Beaune, Defence Minister Florence Parly, OECD Chief Economist Laurence Boone, as well as the former member of the ECB’s executive board, Benoît Coeuré.
Due to issues of gender parity, the French government would have preferred to nominate a woman but did not find the right profile.
On the other hand, choosing an influential CEO as a candidate for the Commission also increases the risk of conflicts of interest, especially since Atos Group is an IT services provider in the European Union.
But Breton is experienced in this field. He already had to answer many questions about conflicts of interest when he was appointed to the French government. Before becoming a minister under Chirac’s government, he was at the helm of France Telecom and Thomson.
At the time, he ensured that the files concerning these companies were handled directly by the prime minister.
“Thierry Breton has always been rigorous in avoiding any conflict of interest” when he was a minister, referring to the issues that may concern him, the French government asserted.
By the end of November, the candidate will have to convince MEPs who are particularly concerned about transparency.
He will first have to appear before the Parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs, which is responsible for ruling on possible conflicts of interest for future Commissioners, and which has already ousted Hungary’s László Trócsányi and Romania’s Rovana Plumb.
Following that, Breton will have to go through hearings with MEPs the same way Goulard did. MEPs will then decide whether to approve the French candidate.
Breton will resign as CEO of Atos with effect from 31 October 2019 and will be replaced by Bertrand Meunier.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]