Crisis will most exercise busy Hollande over coming weeks

Fri, May 18, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The French president is in the US for summits but his biggest concerns are much nearer home

FOREIGN POLICY may have been largely absent from the French presidential election campaign, but as outgoing foreign minister Alain Juppé remarked yesterday, the new administration in Paris has been thrown straight into “a sea of storms” that stretches from its doorstep to the horizon.

Having travelled to Berlin to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel within hours of his swearing-in on Tuesday, President François Hollande will be in the US today for G8 and Nato summits at Camp David and Chicago. For the new president and senior ministers such as Laurent Fabius (foreign) and Pierre Moscovici (finance), however, the European crisis will demand most attention over the coming weeks.

In Dublin and other European capitals, governments will closely watch the new ministers for signs of how the French stance on the major European debates may shift. As it happens, socialists such as Fabius and Moscovici are much more familiar in European capitals than most of the new cabinet – or indeed Hollande himself. As a former prime minister and foreign minister, Fabius (65) knows the major European debates intimately. A product of the French technocracy, Fabius was just 37 when President François Mitterrand appointed him prime minister in 1984. Later, he managed France’s joining of the euro in 2002 and is set to play an influential role in forming stance on the single currency and the sovereign debt crisis.

As finance minister, Fabius shared the French government belief in European tax harmonisation, a stance that brought it into conflict with Dublin on occasion, and pushed the idea of giving the eurogroup a stronger political, rather than simply economic, leadership role – a perennial aspiration of French European policy.

Fabius and Hollande have not always stood together on Europe. Although a convinced European, Fabius defied Hollande, then leader of the Socialist Party, by calling for a No vote in France’s referendum on the European constitution in 2005. “Today’s Europe is dictated by finance,” he complained during the campaign. “I want finance to give way to the economy, and the economy to social policy. That means we have to say No, and then we’ll renegotiate.”

Fabius ended up on the winning side, but the wounds from the 2005 split are still raw in the party. That was considered one of the strongest arguments against making Fabius foreign minister, a post he has long coveted, but Hollande could be calculating that bringing in his long-time rival – and having him sell the president’s European policy to the “France du Non”– is a shrewd political move. The new minister for European Affairs, Bernard Cazeneuve – better known as a specialist on nuclear power and Rwanda than Europe – was also on the No side in 2005.

Mr Moscovici (54), the new finance minister, has been deeply immersed in European affairs over the past two decades. Like Fabius, he is a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for the French elite, and is seen as a pragmatic social democrat. After a stint as a Trotskyist, Moscovici joined the Socialist party in 1984 and rose quickly to become the party’s youngest national secretary. Ambitious and intelligent, his taste for expensive cigars, designer suits and three-day stubble earned him plenty of disdain in the Socialist Party. “A cigar can be negative when you are building a political image,” he once told a French magazine. “Within the Socialist party, they find me pretentious because of my Havanas.” After his mentor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, pulled out of the presidency race last year, he quickly made himself indispensable to Hollande.

A self-described “militant for a political Europe”, Moscovici has impeccable European credentials, having been an MEP, Europe minister in the 1997-2002 Jospin government, and teacher on EU issues. As Hollande’s campaign manager, he was centrally involved in coming up with strategy on the fiscal treaty, which consisted of pledging agreement with the current text but refusing to ratify it unless France secured a deal on a parallel pact to kick-start economic growth.

“Mosco”, who speaks English and has visited Ireland many times, would have sanctioned the contacts that took place between the Hollande camp and the Irish Government in the run-up to the election, and told The Irish Times last week that Hollande would not interfere in the Irish referendum.

“We will be extremely demanding on this issue,” Moscovici said on the call for a growth pact recently. “What we want is not something cosmetic. It’s real and determined. It’s about rebalancing and reorienting European integration.”