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French diplomats, civil servants and policymakers will play a key role in delivering set priorities for the country’s presidency of the Council of the EU, which started on January 1.
Here are some of the key people who will be a driving force behind the presidency and France’s overall standing in Brussels, in alphabetical order.
Alexandre Adam: The Elysée’s eyes on the presidency
Alexandre Adam has been at the Elysée since the beginning of French President Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. He is one of a handful of original people still there. Before stepping up as Europe adviser in July 2020, after Clément Beaune was appointed to the government, he was one of Beaune’s deputies, focusing on the relationship with Germany and Eastern Europe.
Adam will be a sort of control tower for the presidency of the Council of the EU at the Elysée Palace. He served at the French embassy in Berlin before joining the Elysée in 2017, and has kept good personal ties with counterparts in Germany. He also understands the coalition-building system, which is alien to French political culture but a crucial requirement in the EU game.
He was a major driver of the course correction Macron undertook toward Poland and the Baltics, after initially blindsiding them by launching a strategic dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin without consulting with his European allies.
Clément Beaune: Macron’s European brain
After serving as Macron’s Europe adviser at the Elysée Palace, Beaune was appointed junior minister for European affairs in July 2020.
Beaune remains one of Macron’s closest advisers on European issues, and plays an outsized media role on all things Europe. He delivered most of France’s public digs at the United Kingdom post-Brexit on national media.
Macron had him unveil the logo, map and new two-euro issuing at his big press conference to discuss the priorities of the French presidency of the Council of the EU.
Expect all thorny issues related to the presidency of the Council of the EU to go through Beaune and his team. He will be the major clearinghouse for decisions, along with Adam.
Thierry Breton: Multitasking commissioner
Two years after his nomination as France’s European commissioner, Thierry Breton no longer needs an introduction.
The Frenchman, who was initially relatively unknown in the EU capital, has become omnipresent as the bloc’s chief for the internal market, vaccines, digital affairs, defense, microchips, space … (The list goes on forever.)
In the past few months, the former telecom CEO met with the French government’s main ministers to prepare for France’s presidency. He has known heavyweights, such as Minister of the Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, for years.
Since he took office, Breton has greatly contributed to shifting the mood in Brussels toward a more interventionist approach — one that is backed and promoted by Macron.
Breton also shares Paris’ stances on strategic autonomy, industrial policy and how the emergence of European champions could prevail over strict enforcement of competition rules. That line has put him on a collision course with free-market-oriented colleagues such as Margrethe Vestager.
Pascal Canfin: Green whip
MEP Pascal Canfin is Macron’s man in Brussels when it comes to pushing the implementation of the European Green Deal — and France’s interests. A former head of green group WWF France, he also served as development minister under former Socialist President François Hollande.
An experienced MEP — he served a first term in 2009-2012 — Canfin is currently chairing the environment, public health and food safety committee, the largest in the European Parliament. The committee is in charge of shepherding most files related to the European Green Deal in the Parliament.
He gets on the nerves of the more pro-business MEPs from Renew Europe, his own political group, and from the Parliament’s environment committee for backing ambitious green policies and being a bit too diligent in defending French interests.
The Frenchman has pushed for including nuclear power in the EU’s list of green investments, also known as the taxonomy, is a strong proponent of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (a priority of the French presidency) and wants to limit the scope for the revision of the Emissions Trading System — which he doesn’t want to see extended to the housing and transport sectors, fearing it will lead to an EU-wide Yellow Jackets movement.
Céline Gauer: EU money woman
Céline Gauer was tapped last summer to head the task force in charge of managing the EU’s pandemic recovery fund. A steely-eyed long-time Commission official, she trained as a lawyer in her native France and rose through the ranks of the EU’s competition department, where she dealt with antitrust cases in the energy sector. She then did a brief stint as deputy director of the Commission’s health department, and in 2018 was appointed to the Secretariat General by Martin Selmayr, its former chief.
The task force she leads has the sensitive job of policing EU countries’ use of €800 billion in grants and loans over the next five years, steering capitals toward high-dividend investments and, crucially, tough structural changes, such as those to their labor market, pensions and taxation. Gauer must play a delicate balance between nudging EU capitals on the reform path — something net payers to the EU budget are keeping a close eye on — and ensuring that the one-off, first-of-its-kind instrument is a success, given how much the current Commission leadership has staked on it.
As a violoncellist in Brussels’ amateur symphony orchestra, Gauer is used to attuning herself to the wills of a maestro and ensuring her words are never off-key. “She is very, very smart and very composed,” said an official who dealt with her during recovery fund negotiations.
Olivier Guersent: Comp maestro
The French finally have what they wanted: A compatriot in charge of the EU’s competition directorate (DG COMP), one of the last bastions of liberalism in Brussels. The powerful competition directorate can block corporate mergers or impose multi-billion-euro fines on the internet giants. It is also at the heart of competing visions for one of Brussels’ true powers, with the French on one side, wanting to favor the emergence of so-called European champions, and free-traders on the other, arguing for strict enforcement of competition rules.
France is said to have insisted on moving Guersent — previously the head of the finance department — to the competition job. But while many agree he is a great ambassador for DG COMP in Paris whether he can also be of help for Paris in Brussels is less certain.
A few months into the job, he strongly pushed back against the Franco-German campaign to weaken EU merger control to enable the creation of European champions. France insists bolstering industry through mergers or subsidies will help the EU reach “strategic autonomy,” reducing dependency on China or the U.S. in key sectors of the economy. Brussels’ recent concession that capitals can subsidize microchip factories in the name of resilience suggests it is hard to resist the pressure from Paris.
Valérie Hayer: Macron’s campaigner-in-chief in Brussels
Since elected MEP in 2019, Hayer has risen to power in little time, becoming one of the Renew Europe group’s most influential French MEPs, and Macron’s most active campaigners in the Parliament.
The daughter of farmers from western France, Hayer has gained credibility among her peers for her work in steering legislation on the EU’s post-COVID budget, particularly on the so-called Own Ressources text.
Last month, she replaced Stephane Séjourné as co-leader of the French delegation of Macron-affiliated MEPs, alongside MEP Marie-Pierre Vedrenne.
She is also the president of the Association for European Revival, which is financed by Macron’s party and aimed at preparing the ground for his European presidency and launching discussions on the bloc across France.
Philippe Léglise-Costa: Chief negotiator
Léglise-Costa is France’s permanent representative to the EU and as such, will be tasked with chairing “coreper” meetings of EU ambassadors. Léglise-Costa and his deputy Fabrice Dubreuil will have to get their 26 EU counterparts to agree on crucial files, particularly that France will be pushing during its presidency, including the Digital Markets and Services Acts, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism and the EU minimum wage.
Léglise-Costa, former French president François Hollande’s EU advisor, will act as the gatekeeper of France’s influence during the presidency, including by chairing all the important meetings in French.
But he will also have to adapt to France’s peculiar political context. The country’s campaign to elect its new president in April will likely overshadow the French presidency of the EU, particularly in its final stages.
“The EU ambassador will need to be highly prepared because ministers might have less time to invest in Brussels,” said Pierre Sellal, the president of the Fondation de France, a leading philanthropic network in France and Léglise-Costa’s predecessor as France’s permanent representative in the EU. Sellal added that a similar situation had taken place in 1995, when France elected former president Jacques Chirac while holding the French presidency.
Léglise-Costa has until now kept a relatively low profile, which French officials link to his bumpy relations with Macron dating back to when he was Hollande’s Sherpa and Macron the Elysée’s secretary-general.
Denis Redonnet: Trade enforcer
Since his appointment as the EU’s chief trade enforcement officer in July last year, Denis Redonnet has been portrayed as the Directorate General for Trade’s new superhero, who defends EU companies in foreign markets and can press charges when countries breach their climate or labor promises in trade pacts.
“He’s going to be a star” under the French presidency, an EU diplomat said. This is because Redonnet is a key figure for the French trade agenda, which focuses on less “naïve” trade terms — i.e. souped-up enforcement. But he’s also crucial for Brussels’ new trade strategy, which also centers on becoming more “assertive.”
Appointing a French person to the job is no political coincidence, since Paris’ trade focus is more about protecting its market (and farmers) rather than increasing trade flows via new deals. French trade minister Franck Riester repeatedly touts Paris’ role in creating this trade enforcement position at EU level, and said that it’s “occupied by a Frenchman, Denis Redonnet, who’s doing a remarkable job.”
Redonnet has had a decisively international and EU-centered career, working in finance in Tokyo and London before entering the Commission, where he was one of the negotiators in the EU-U.S. trade talks.
Stéphanie Riso: French eyes in the Berlaymont
As deputy cabinet chief for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Riso is one of the most important French bureaucrats in Brussels: Amid a group of largely German-speaking aides around von der Leyen, the French economist makes sure that Paris’ interests and views are also heard and taken into account at the top of the Commission.
Riso joined the European Commission more than 20 years ago, working her way up the career ladder as an expert in macroeconomics and fiscal policies, before dedicating her time to the EU budget. Yet her biggest career booster came with the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU, when chief negotiator Michel Barnier nominated her as a key adviser in his Brexit task force.
Brexit proved Riso’s competence in dealing with complicated negotiation matters, and consequently in her new job as von der Leyen’s deputy cabinet chief, she was tasked with overseeing trade talks with Switzerland. Although those negotiations broke down in May this year (and are now in the hands of Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič), nobody in Brussels blamed Riso, who had put a lot of effort into brokering a compromise with the Swiss, which Bern ultimately rejected.
As economic and financial questions are likely going to play an important role in the years to come — with France pushing to make the EU’s recovery fund a more permanent tool to finance new investments into Europe’s economy and strategic sovereignty — Riso is set to continue playing a key role at the top of the Commission.
Stéphane Séjourné: Macron’s man in Brussels
A former adviser to the French president, Séjourné was elected as a member of the European Parliament in 2019 and recently became the leader of the Parliament’s third-largest group, Renew Europe. The centrist, liberal group includes 23 French MEPs out of 101 total.
In that role, he will steer his group’s work on many of the issues that the French presidency will want to conclude or advance during its term, including the EU minimum wage, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism and the Digital Markets and Services Acts.
Séjourné is also working hard to expand the liberal family in the Parliament and in Europe. The group has welcomed a few new members and is poised to soon merge into one single liberal party and group (so far it was the Renew group and the ALDE party).
With the French presidency and Macron’s possible reelection campaign around the corner, expect non-French MEPs from Renew Europe to keep a close watch on Séjourné. He will have to prove that he is the leader of the European liberals rather than France and Macron’s campaign chief in the Parliament.
Not all centrist MEPs are keen on France’s push for the EU’s “strategic autonomy” or self-sufficiency, or certain aspects of the EU’s “Green Deal” to make the bloc climate neutral by 2050.
Stéphanie Yon-Courtin: Tech gatekeeper
A first-time MEP from Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche party, Stéphanie Yon-Courtin has emerged as a go-to lawmaker for competition and digital issues.
In the late 1990s, she spent nearly two years working at the European Commission before moving to law firms and eventually France’s competition authority, where she counseled then-president Bruno Lasserre on international affairs from 2007 to 2010.
Yon-Courtin is currently vice president of the European Parliament’s economic affairs committee — one of its most powerful bodies — and plays a key role as a rapporteur on the Digital Markets Act, the EU’s rulebook to tame tech giants’ market power, which is one of France’s main priorities during its EU presidency.
She is one of the few French MEPs with direct impact on the drafting of the Parliament’s Digital Markets Act position.
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