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Macron proposes Thierry Breton as new French EU commissioner following rejection of previous nominee

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By Euronews with Reuters
FILE: Atos Chairman and CEO Thierry Breton arrives to attend a state dinner in honour of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, March 25, 2019.
FILE: Atos Chairman and CEO Thierry Breton arrives to attend a state dinner in honour of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, March 25, 2019.   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

France has proposed Atos CEO Thierry Breton as its candidate to head industrial policy in the next European Commission, President Emmanuel Macron's office said, two weeks after his first choice was rejected by EU lawmakers.

Breton, who was France's finance minister under late President Jacques Chirac, has been chief executive of Atos technology group since 2009.

"He's a 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.

Following his nomination, Breton told AFP news agency that he is already "devoting himself to the preparation of the hearings before the competent committees of the European Parliament."

"I am very honoured by the trust President Emmanuel Macron and the elected President of the European Commission, Mrs Ursula von der Leyen placed in me" he added.

"I appreciate [...] the importance of the issues associated with this portfolio for the future of our continent."

Unchanged portfolio

Earlier this month, 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.

The French leader is looking to end what he called a "political crisis" and has sought assurances from her the new candidate would be approved.

Macron is also keen to preserve the huge portfolio he had negotiated with incoming European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen.

"The portfolio will remain unchanged," the presidential aide said.

Conservative background

Despite his conservative background, Breton backed Macron during the 2017 campaign before even the first round of the presidential election.

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 added. "It is probably the best tactical decision."

Macron's previous nominee, Goulard, was a centrist politician facing a judicial investigation into the way her party MoDem hired assistants in the European Parliament.

She was also pressed by MEPs over her work in previous years as an adviser for a US think-tank which paid her more than 10,000 euros a month.

President Macron insisted Goulard was the victim of a “political game.”

“I need to understand what was at play. Resentment. Pettiness maybe. But I need to understand,” he said.

In July, Macron killed off an EPP initiative to decide who would become the next head of the powerful European Commission, angering Europe's Conservatives.

Private sector experience to come under scrutiny

Unlike many French officials, Breton is not a graduate of the ENA finishing school of government, but holds a masters of engineering from top French school Supelec.

Besides Atos, Breton was CEO of electronics multinational company Thomson and telecommunications giant France Telecom.

His 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 came on the government agenda and would certainly do the same in his new functions to avoid any conflict of interest.

Thierry Breton will resign from his position at Atos on October 31, the company said in a statement. Elie Girard, currently Atos' Deputy Director-General, will take over for him on November 1.