Ich Liebe Deutsch: Macron's Cabinet Speaks Merkel's Language

  • Macron names German speakers to key posts in signal to Berlin
  • Finance chief Le Maire already spoke to Germany’s Schaeuble

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

French President Emmanuel Macron demonstrated his commitment to making a deeper partnership with Berlin one of the pillars of his administration as he convened a cabinet stuffed with German speakers for the first time on Thursday.

At least six members of Macron’s inner circle speak German, and both Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and finance chief Bruno Le Maire have practically a native grasp. Even the president himself has some knowledge of the language, according to his aides, though he did use an earpiece at a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday. The French and German cabinets will hold a joint meeting in July.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

After defeating the nationalist Marine Le Pen in this month’s election on a promise to make European Union membership work for ordinary French voters, Macron’s relationship with the bloc’s biggest economy will go a long way toward determining whether his five-year term proves a success. And while his election was roundly welcomed on the other side of the Rhine, many sectors of the German government and media are leery of the concessions that Macron is likely to demand.

The 39-year-old president has been clear that he wants to remodel the French economy along the lines of Germany’s reforms in the early years of the century, but he’s also said he wants to shift the euro zone away from austerity in the medium term.

“What’s interesting for Europe is how much Macron can revive the Franco-German relationship and make it the backbone of a new, successful European Union,” Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, said in an interview. “The starting point for some Germans is ‘Why should we pay the French do what they should have done 10 years ago?’ But they also know they need some help running Europe.”

Whoever emerges in charge of Germany after national elections in September -- and Merkel remains the clear favorite to secure a fourth term -- they should be able to find plenty of common experience with their French counterparts.

Philippe, the 46-year-old French premier, graduated from high school in Bonn, Le Maire also speaks the language fluently and Macron’s top foreign policy adviser, Philippe Etienne, is a diplomat who most recently served as ambassador in Berlin.

Richard Ferrand, the former Socialist who helped Macron create his party, also spent two years at high school in Germany. Defense Minister Sylvie Goulard, a former European lawmaker sitting on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, speaks German, and speechwriter Sylvain Fort wrote his doctoral thesis on the German poet Friederich von Schiller.

Talks With Schaeuble

It’s Le Maire who probably matters most.

Bruno Le Maire on May 18.

Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

The 48-year-old diplomat and writer takes on the critical job of wielding French power in the euro zone. As such he will be charged with keeping Macron’s promises of improving the governance within the currency club and closing the competitive gap that has left France behind its peers in terms of growth and employment.

Le Maire will fly to Berlin on Monday morning for private talks with his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, before they travel to Brussels together to meet their euro-zone colleagues later in the day.

“Nothing great happens in Europe without a solid Franco-German relationship,” Le Maire said on Wednesday as he took office, mentioning that he’d already had a conversation with Schaeuble that day. “France should control its public accounts and meet its commitments to its partners,” he added, in a nod to German concerns about French budget discipline. “In a family, you don’t spend more money than you earn.”

Le Maire already has a relationship with the German finance minister after several meetings, including during the presidential campaign. Le Maire has had direct contact with Merkel and has repeatedly called for an increased tie between the two biggest euro-zone nations.

“The choice of Le Maire is also probably aimed at sending a strong signal to Germany about Macron’s commitment to reform,” said Antonio Barroso, a political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

Party vs Country

Le Maire was a Republican figure until his government nomination Wednesday and is Macron’s second major catch in a week from the center-right group after Philippe agreed to take the post of prime minister on Monday. Le Maire will run the ministry with another conservative by his side in Gerard Darmanin, who will be in charge of the budget and the civil servants. The Republicans have begun the process of expelling all three since accepted their government positions.

“I made a personal choice to help my country -- perhaps more than my party did,” Darmanin said Wednesday. “The president’s road map is clear: to reassure our European partners.”

After years of strained relations between the countries, Macron wants to reset the partnership with Germany to fight the populist tide that he says will return stronger if the economy doesn’t improve. His double challenge will involve convincing France’s European partners that the country is prepared to change, and then persuading his countrymen to accept the sacrifices that involves.

Unions and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 19 percent support in the presidential election, are gearing up to oppose Macron’s pledge to overhaul France’s famously complex labor law.

While the French budget deficit is on track to meet the deficit limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product this year, it will rise above that bar in again 2018 if no action is taken, the European Commission said last week.

Though they ran on different sides of the ideological divide during the presidential election, Le Maire and Macron agree on economic policy. Both argue that companies should have more flexibility to hire and fire and the government should cut public spending.

“It’s in this ministry that France’s credibility in Europe is acquired,” outgoing Finance Minister Michel Sapin said Wednesday as he handed over to his successor. “France is our inheritance, Europe is our destiny.”

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