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By John Irish
PARIS May 17 France's outgoing defence minister
was appointed to run a newly created Europe and Foreign Ministry
on Wednesday and an ardent European took over his old portfolio,
cementing President Emmanuel Macron's pledge to give the
28-nation EU new impetus.
The 69-year-old Jean-Yves Le Drian is a close friend of
former Socialist President Francois Hollande, a rare popular
minister in Hollande's deeply unpopular government and an
experienced political heavyweight by the standards of some of
his new ministerial colleagues.
He backed Macron early on, and had been tipped to retain the
defence portfolio. However, the decision to put Sylvie Goulard,
a European expert, into his old role instead, was a surprise and
further emphasises Macron's European push and desire to work
towards greater defence integration.
A European lawmaker who speaks four languages, Goulard is
respected in Brussels as a straight talker, having acted as
adviser to former European Commission president Romano Prodi.
A close ally of Macron, she ranks above Le Drian in the
government hierarchy, and becomes only the second woman to head
the ministry, which reverts to its pre-1974 name of Ministry of
the Armed Forces.
That adds to the emphasis Macron has put on his role as
commander-in-chief of the armed forces by his drive down the
Champs Elysees in a military jeep on his inauguration day, his
visit to injured soldiers, and his preparations to see French
troops in Africa on Friday.
"In both cases this is a strong European signal. Sylvie
Goulard is a professional European, which can only mean one
thing - that European defence is one of the priorities," said
Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for
Le Drian, who has nurtured close ties with African and
Middle Eastern leaders and developed Paris' relationship in
Asia, is likely to leave much of the European portfolio to
junior minister Marielle De Sarnez, a centrist European expert
who has been a member of the European parliament since 1999.
An advocate of closer EU integration, Macron backs a
"multi-speed" Europe, an idea that has earned growing support in
Germany and other EU countries since Britain voted to leave the
In the past, France has tended to be seen by allies as an
intransigent, go-it-alone power because of its military
interventions in arenas like Libya, the Middle East and the
Macron wants deeper security cooperation with Europe, but he
may find it hard to break the mould of predecessors Francois
Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.
"This shows Europe is the priority," a French diplomatic
source said of the rare inclusion of Europe in the foreign
ministry portfolio, although also sounding a warning note on his
suitability for the role.
"He's (Le Drian) very serious and well-liked but doesn't
know that much about foreign affairs. It's not the same skill
set as the defence job."
Le Drian was seen as the driving force behind France's
counter-terrorism operations in West Africa and the Middle East,
and a key player in efforts to fight the threat from Islamist
militants at home by putting some 10,000 soldiers on the streets
Over the last few years, Le Drian had at times been at odds
with foreign ministry policy. One diplomat said the changes in
president and ministers would enable a review of Paris'
positioning on key issues such as the crises in Syria and Libya.
"Take Libya, for example, after years of opposing policies
between the defence and foreign ministry, this is an opportunity
to just decide on one policy," said another diplomat.
A former university history teacher, Le Drian has spent 35
years in politics and is president of the Brittany region.
He is also credited with leading a resurgence in French
weapons' exports that have resulted in billions of euros in
deals, including the first exports of the Rafale fighter jet
made by French companies Dassault Aviation and Thales
Keeping him in government should also ensure continuity in
negotiations currently underway.
"He will have a wider remit, but my expectation is he would
remain heavily involved in this," Heisbourg said.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Callus)