May 17, 2017 / 2:01 PM / 2 months ago

Macron picks pro-EU conservative Le Maire as French finance chief

4 Min Read

Bruno Le Maire attends an interview with Reuters in Paris, France, February 16, 2017. Picture taken February 16, 2017.Benoit Tessier/Files

PARIS (Reuters) - Bruno Le Maire, named French economy minister on Wednesday, is a reform-minded conservative whose expertise on Europe and staunch defence of the Franco-German relationship will prove valuable as new President Emmanuel Macron pushes for closer EU integration.

Le Maire, a pro-European German-speaker, came second to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy in the battle for the leadership of The Republicans (LR) party in 2014, and finished fifth in the party's presidential primaries last year.

He became LR candidate Francois Fillon's international affairs spokesman, but resigned when the former prime minister was embroiled in a financial scandal this year.

Le Maire has since distanced himself from his party, calling for the right to work constructively with Macron to ensure the president's five years in office succeeds and prevents the far-right making further electoral inroads.

"He is very thorough, knows his dossiers extremely well, and will be a big asset for European issues," said a French diplomat who has worked with him in the past.

Born in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, he is the son of an executive at the oil company Total and a headmistress of private Catholic schools.

He attended the Ecole Normale Superieure literary college, the Sciences-Po political science school, and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which trains top civil servants.

After training as a diplomat, he worked for six years as top aide to the Gaullist Dominique de Villepin at the Elysee presidential palace, the foreign ministry, and the prime minister's office, where he was chief of staff from 2006 to 2007.

Unlike many French politicians, who remain life-long civil servants on extended leave and enjoy a return ticket if they lose office, Le Maire resigned from the civil service in 2012.

Le Maire served as a former minister of state for European affairs under Sarkozy from 2008 to 2009.

He was also agriculture minister under the former president, a post he held from 2009 to 2012, despite courting the finance ministry, which was at the last minute handed to Francois Baroin, now head of LR's legislative campaign team.

Rightward Shift

He shifted to the right during the conservative primaries, taking a tough stance on law and order and national identity issues. He called last year for the immediate expulsion of foreigners regarded as suspect by the security services and the deportation of foreign nationals who complete jail terms.

He has set out a free-market economic agenda, calling for the privatisation of France's labour offices, the end of subsidised jobs and capping of welfare benefits.

A father of four, who is married to an artist, he toured France on his own for three years to prepare his 2017 presidential bid, taking the pulse of public opinion.

A prolific writer, his eighth book - "Ne vous resignez pas!" (Don't give up) denounced France's economic decline due to "our collective cowardice".

On foreign policy, Le Maire is a traditional Gaullist, favouring French national independence.

Editing by Andrew Callus and Louise Ireland

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