PARIS (Reuters) - 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 Strategic Studies.
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 bloc.
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 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 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 of France.
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