‘Like talking to the president’: Macron’s go-to man for Europe

Clément Beaune has affection for Ireland and our approach to European solidarity

In the autumn of 2001, a young French student called Clément Beaune arrived at Dublin airport to begin a year's study at Trinity College under the EU's Erasmus scholarship programme. It was Beaune's first trip to Ireland and the taxi driver pointed out historic sites, including the General Post Office.

“He showed me the bullet holes in the walls and he told me it was the fault of the English, but it wasn’t sad or aggressive, just a sort of daily memory,” Beaune recalled on Friday, sitting in his office overlooking the Seine at the French foreign ministry.

The same office was once occupied by Michel Barnier, one of Beaune's predecessors who is now the EU's chief Brexit negotiator.

President Emmanuel Macron promoted Beaune, aged 39, to Minister of State for European Affairs in July. He earlier served as Macron's European adviser at the economy ministry, during Macron's presidential campaign, and for more than three years at the Élysée.


The French, like Ireland, still hope for agreement in London

Beaune could not understand the accent of that Dublin taxi driver back in 2001, yet he still sees him as typically European. “A sort of obsession with history, without being paralysed by it. One is truly European when one combines precise memories of history with a strong projection towards the future.”

Beaune lived with Irish and other European students in a rundown house at the Seapoint Dart station. “Sometimes it was like camping. The heating didn’t work and there was rarely hot water. Real student life. It was for me a year of joy and freedom,” he says.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks cast a pall over the world then. But at the same time, the Celtic Tiger was peaking. Dublin grew before Beaune's eyes. The ambience was intensely hopeful. "There was great pride when Ireland was in the first wave to enter the euro with Germany and France, without Britain... For my Irish friends, Europe meant mutual support, modernity, a positive spirit. I was very struck by their European enthusiasm. I developed a European conscience in Dublin."

Beaune has a framed photograph of himself with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in his office. They met when Varadkar attended one of Macron's presidential campaign rallies in 2017. Then ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason introduced them, because both had attended TCD.

“Clément Beaune is the essential contact for European diplomats in Paris,” says Ambassador Patricia O’Brien. “He is a convinced European with immense energy and a profound grasp of all the issues. And he has a talent for making the most complex dossiers understandable. Macron relies on him totally, so talking to Clément is like talking to the president. His affection for Ireland is a bonus for us.”

Beaune met Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney in Paris for the first time on Thursday night. Their time together was devoted to negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship between the EU and the UK. "We were in total convergence on everything," Beaune says.

France sometimes has the image of going it alone, and of arrogance. It would be arrogant to say we've done everything right

The French, like Ireland, still hope for agreement in London. Neither country “will sacrifice the essential interests of our fishermen, who did not have a vote, on the altar of the Brexit referendum,” Beaune warns. He admits that France has played “the role of bad cop” for four and a half years of Brexit negotiations. They did it in Europe’s interest, he says, implying that Europeans need to learn to be more tough.

“Europeans are sometimes excessive facilitators, who seek agreement at any price. They want to be sympathique with everybody,” Beaune explains. “There’s a European syndrome of benevolent culpability, as if we had to be in a sort of permanent compromise. It’s in our DNA as Europeans, but it’s also in our European DNA not to be ashamed of defending our values, our rules and our interests.”

For Beaune, the approval of the €750 billion recovery fund on July 21st was the most historic development in Europe since the single currency. It started with a letter calling for the creation of shared European debt and signed by France and eight other countries, including Ireland, in March.

Dublin had earlier associated itself with the so-called Hanseatic League of northern countries who oppose further integration. So Ireland's decision was an important shift, says Beaune, which "played a role in the perception of our struggle, because Ireland is not lax in terms of public finance. It gave credibility to our demarche . . . It was a very strong message which said, 'We know what European solidarity is and we want to strengthen the mechanisms of solidarity and protection in this new crisis.' At least that was how the Irish message was received."

Beaune acknowledges that “France sometimes has the image of going it alone, and of arrogance. It would be arrogant to say we’ve done everything right, but since 2017, President Macron has changed method. He really wants to talk to everyone.”