PARIS, May 17 (Reuters) - France’s outgoing defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was appointed to head up a newly created Europe and Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, a move cementing Emmanuel Macron’s campaign pledge to focus on giving the European Union a new impetus.
The 69-year-old Le Drian is a longstanding 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. The decision to put Sylvie Goulard, a European expert, into his old role instead, further emphasises Macron’s European push.
Le Drian will also be supported on the Europe portfolio by 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 bloc.
In the past, France has often been seen by its allies as an intransigent, go-it-alone power because of its military interventions in arenas like Libya, the Middle East and the Sahel.
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 fact that the foreign ministry portfolio does not usually officially include Europe.
“He’s very serious and well-liked but doesn’t know that much about foreign affairs.”
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 of France.
A former university history teacher, he 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. (Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Callus)