Thierry Repentin gets to grips with new role as France’s junior minister for European affairs

Minister recognises Ireland’s need for better conditions to exit EU-IMF bailout

French junior minister for European Affairs Thierry Repentin: in just three weeks he has mastered the intricacies of negotiations with the European Parliament and Commission. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

French junior minister for European Affairs Thierry Repentin: in just three weeks he has mastered the intricacies of negotiations with the European Parliament and Commission. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Thu, Apr 11, 2013, 06:52

Thierry Repentin has been on a fast learning curve since he was appointed junior minister for European affairs on March 20th. In three weeks, Repentin (50), a former socialist senator from the French alps, has mastered the intricacies of negotiations with the European Parliament and commission.

He argues for lenience on France’s failure to meet the EU’s three per cent limit on budget deficits, on the grounds that France is spending a great deal of money in Mali and is now being asked to shoulder a big chunk of the €11.2 billion in cost overruns from the last EU budget.

Most important from Ireland’s point of view, Repentin knows that Paris and Dublin are on the same side. “The only place we don’t agree is on the rugby pitch,” the minister says.

Both countries are delighted with the better-than-hoped-for deal recently hammered out for the Common Agriculture Policy in the 2014-2020 budget.

Two questions are of utmost importance in smoothing Ireland’s exit from the EU-IMF bailout: agreement on a supervisory mechanism for the EU banking union by the end of Ireland’s EU presidency in June, and the creation this year of an authority that would shift debt from the Irish Government by recapitalising Irish banks. France firmly supports Ireland’s request for retro-active recapitalisation.

“The context favours it,” Repentin says. “It’s recognised by everyone that Ireland has shown exemplary management of its crisis, which means that Ireland’s requests for better conditions are perceived positively . . . We say ‘bravo for the courageous efforts of these last few years’,” he adds, noting that Irish bonds were sold at less than 4.5 per cent last month. “There’s a recognition by the markets that Ireland has tackled its problems head-on.”


‘Friendly tensions’
Since François Hollande was elected president, Germany and France have been locked in confrontation over the bitter medicine of austerity. In a March 28th television interview, Hollande alluded to “friendly tensions”.

Repentin characterises the Franco-German relationship as “direct and sincere”. Whatever their differences, the two countries must work together, he said.

The minister speaks to his German counterpart, Michael Link, several times a week. They are embarking on a series of journeys around the EU “so we can carry together the message that we want Europe to go forward”. The Franco-German relationship is “unique in terms of intensity”, he says. “I know of nowhere else in the world where two countries work together every day.”

Anti-German demonstrations in Greece and Cyprus were “unhealthy”, Repentin says. “We have a shared destiny. We will succeed or fail collectively . . . Europe is the scapegoat for national difficulties, and as a result, those who are seen to have a preponderant role are more scapegoats than others. In this difficult context, there are sometimes unacceptable caricatures of Germany. It is not acceptable that Madame Merkel be caricatured.”

The French minister rejects the idea that, as the Financial Times wrote on March 25th: “Under President François Hollande, any notion that France is playing an equal role to Germany has disappeared.” He points to the European stability and growth pact adopted after Hollande’s election, progress towards a European financial transactions tax, and the inclusion of €6 billion for unemployed youths in the next EU budget.

‘Geographic border’
“People expect a lot of France as the second great nation, which balances the game,” Repentin explains. “We’re on the geographic border; from neither north nor south. We often act as a bridge between north and south. Germany also knows that France is essential for the balanced dialogue that is needed by Europe.”

European trade ministers may agree on June 14th to endow the EU commission with a mandate for negotiating a wide-ranging trade deal with the US. But there are three subjects on which France cannot compromise, Repentin says. The exception culturelle , which seeks to preserve European television and cinema production from inundation by American blockbusters, is “a red line”. French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti has written to Irish counterpart, Jimmy Deenihan, to enlist support.

France “makes an enormous effort in defence”, which benefits other EU members, Repentin says. It has deployed soldiers to Mali and Afghanistan “in the struggle against terrorism”. The French arms industry creates jobs and prevents France from relying on foreign suppliers. For these reasons, Paris will demand that weapons also be excluded from the deal.

Nor will France allow “subjects that alter the protection of European consumers”, namely genetically modified organisms, growth hormones and the chemical decontamination of meat, to be compromised.