PARIS (Reuters) - France has proposed Atos (ATOS.PA) chief executive Thierry Breton as its candidate for head of industrial policy at the European Commission, President Emmanuel Macron’s office said on Thursday after his first choice was rejected by EU lawmakers.
Breton, who was finance minister under late President Jacques Chirac, has been chief executive at technology group Atos since 2009 and led the turnaround of telecoms giant Orange (ORAN.PA) in the early 2000s.
“He’s man of action who knows industrial issues inside out and who, while knowing Brussels institutions, will not have a bureaucratic approach to European issues, which is important for the president,” an Elysee official said.
Two weeks ago European lawmakers rejected Sylvie Goulard, Macron’s initial pick for European commissioner, causing anger in Paris, where officials blamed German conservatives in the EU parliament.
Choosing a pro-European conservative will help to get the proposed appointment past the European People’s Party (EPP) in parliament, said Tara Varma, head of the Paris branch of the ECFR think-tank.
“His nomination shouldn’t be blocked by the EPP, which Macron couldn’t afford now,” she told Reuters. “It is probably the best tactical decision.”
The conservative EPP party, the biggest group in the European Parliament, was instrumental in rejecting Goulard.
The head of the German contingent at the EPP in the European parliament, Daniel Caspary, had a cautious initial reaction to Breton’s nomination.
“What counts for us are the criteria‚ personal integrity, and qualifications in the subject. We will analyse that fairly and in depth,” he told Reuters.
Macron, who is keen to preserve the wide brief including industrial, defence and digital issues that he negotiated with incoming European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, is looking to move on from what he called a “political crisis” and has sought assurances from her that the new candidate will be approved.
“The portfolio will remain unchanged,” the presidential aide said.
Each EU member state nominates a Commission candidate who must then pass a confirmation hearing in the European Parliament.
Despite his conservative background, Breton backed Macron early in his 2017 presidential election campaign.
In a call with analysts during which he announced he would step down at Atos on Oct. 31, Breton did not hide his goal of making European businesses more competitive than U.S. rivals.
“You may start to see some European companies performing better than U.S. companies, you need to get used to this, and I will work for this where I will be.”
“I appreciate, for Europe and all our fellow European citizens, the importance of the challenges associated with this portfolio for the future of our continent,” Breton said.
Breton’s long career in the private sector is likely to come under scrutiny in the parliamentary hearings.
The Elysee said Breton had always recused himself as a minister whenever matters regarding the companies he worked with arose on the government agenda, and would certainly do the same in his new role to avoid any conflict of interest.
Asked about the issue during a trip to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, Macron defended Breton, saying private sector experience should not necessarily be seen as suspicious.
“The question that will be posed and on which he will give answers is whether he has severed all links with the company on a personal level, and on which files he’ll have to recuse himself,” Macron said.
“I’m glad he accepted. Now the parliament will do its job.”
Reporting by Michel Rose; Additional reporting by Mathieu Rosemain and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Grant McCool, David Goodman and Frances Kerry