The French finance minister has attempted economic, financial and even moral arguments to convince his reluctant counterparts that they must pool their debts to save the European Union, officials said.
As dawn broke, he let it tear up, telling the group that with thousands of people dying from the coronavirus, they should be ashamed of haggling over the numbers: shame on themselves and shame on Europe.
The rant is a typical gesture of Mr. Le Maire, who has become a central, albeit controversial, figure in Europe’s efforts to find a way out of the economic crisis.
His willingness to harangue other governments, central bankers and even the United States Secretary of the Treasury has often earned France a flashback rather than progress. But during this call in early April, it forced a breakthrough: 36 hours later, the ministers were back to agree on the basis of their response with barely a word of dissent.
“If I had not brutalized the debate at some point, I don’t think we would have found a compromise,” said Le Maire.
The confrontational approach is deliberate, said Le Maire during a series of conversations with Bloomberg.
According to him, the economic destruction caused by the coronavirus has led the EU to a crossroads. Either she pulls herself together to face her rivals, or she will be sidelined on the world stage and could even collapse.
“This is not the time to be sensitive, it is the time for action and will,” said Le Maire. “There isn’t much room for hesitation. “
Le Maire follows a French tradition of testing the limits of the country’s influence that his boss, President Emmanuel Macron has also embraced.
Until the virus struck, Macron aimed to lend credibility to his demands for EU integration and NATO reform with a quick program of economic reform at home. Yet while it has spent political capital to rewrite labor laws and rebuild the French tax system, progress on the international stage has been meager.
The pandemic has forced Macron to put his plans on hold to reshape the French economy. But it also gave impetus to European integration.
Building on the foundations laid by Mr. Le Maire and the other finance ministers in April, France and Germany agreed this month on a joint debt issuance plan to finance subsidies to help the countries most affected by the virus to restart their economies.
For Le Maire, who worked on the Franco-German compromise in daily calls and meetings with his counterpart Olaf Scholz, it will be remembered as a historic breakthrough that saved Europe from a fate financially and politically perilous.
Now they have to win skeptical countries led by the Netherlands. And that will mean a new round of negotiations with officials across Europe, some of whom are beginning to roll their eyes at the drama emanating from Paris.
The European project has been an integral part of Mr. Le Maire’s life from the start.
His grandfather was detained in a German prison camp during World War II and his father, although he did not speak a word of the language, became obsessed with the idea of fostering relations with the French neighbor on the other side of the Rhine, said Le Maire.
So, as a young adolescent, the minister was sent to study in the port city of Bremen. It was a formative experience for Mr. Le Maire, who is still fluent in German and a complete Germanophile.
“Basically, Europe is our collective lifeline and our culture,” he said.
Le Maire started his career as a diplomat working on the French opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003 and was assistant minister for European Affairs under President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2008.
A challenge to Mr. Sarkozy for the leadership of the main center-right party in France made Mr. Le Maire a rising star, but his second candidacy for first place ended in humiliation. He entered the center-right primary for the 2017 presidential election among the first, but won only 2.4% of the vote.
Le Maire says that his mistake was to be carried away by an official campaign and a heavy manifesto of 1,000 pages: “It is a mistake that I will never do again.”
His career was saved when Mr. Macron asked him to take over the finance ministry.
Although the two men came from opposite political factions, they shared a preference for hardball and a conviction that France should encourage people to take more risks and accept technological disruptions.
The two pursued high-level literary studies before training at the École normale d’administration française, the elite school for civil servants. Both also left the public service, giving up pension rights and career guarantees of what Mr. Le Maire describes as a “technocratic monarchy”.
The latitude Mr. Macron leaves to his chief financial officer is part of the appeal of Mr. Le Maire, who manages to write books alongside his responsibilities for managing the French economy.
Last year, he published a volume on the death of a close friend. This year, he is preparing a novel about the life of a pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
“I believe in the virtue of failure,” said Le Maire. “I prefer to move forward, burn my boats and take all the risks.”
Last year, the pair dragged the continent to the brink of a transatlantic trade war by levying an unconventional tax on internet giants that have hit some of America’s biggest companies.
They argued that companies like Facebook are contributing to rising global inequality by competing with local businesses while paying less tax and channeling profits through foreign jurisdictions. President Donald Trump has just seen an American money grab.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg asked Macron for a softer approach when they met in February.
“Macron told me about it,” said Le Maire. “He said: you’re right, keep going, it’s very effective. “
France had backed off slightly when Macron agreed in January to postpone collecting the tax this year to prevent Trump from imposing additional tariffs on French products. But the dispute should resurface, as Le Maire says France will still claim taxes if there is no global agreement on the taxation of tech companies by the end of this year.
A Facebook spokesperson in Paris declined to comment on the meeting with Macron.
The international stance was accompanied by a media blitz at home, fueling speculation that Le Maire wants to become Prime Minister if the crisis prompts a government to reshuffle. But the minister says he prefers to stick to Mr. Macron’s first term where he is, taking the lead on European and international issues.
“In this very special post of Minister of Finance, it is time to build credibility,” he said.
What about another presidential race? The Mayor says that he will support Mr. Macron for a second term in 2022. When in a hurry, he passes in English to quote a scene from Macketh of Shakespeare, when the ally of the protagonist Banquo implores three witches to tell his future.
“If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grains will grow and which will not, talk to me then,” recites Le Maire.
He does not mention that later in the play, Banquo is assassinated by his friend Macbeth, who comes to see him as a threat to his political ambitions.
Updated: May 23, 2020 06:46 PM