It is hardly surprising that the EU institutions and press corps find it hard to take France’s ministers for European affairs seriously. Less than four years into his term, President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed one for each year and every choice has been more of an act of domestic political calculation than a strategic pick. Jean-Pierre Jouyet and Bruno Le Maire were selected to show the president’s openness to external and internal party critics, and Pierre Lellouche to balance his renewed commitment to NATO with his determination to forge an EU defence identity.
When Sarkozy reshuffled the government in November, the president struck out on a new path. In choosing Laurent Wauquiez, a 35-year-old wunderkind from the ‘social’ wing of his Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party, Sarkozy has come close to appointing someone who shares his view of how Europe and politics should be played: treating Europe as a defensive shield to protect the French – the world’s most pessimistic people, according to a recent poll – from external threats, and measuring a politician’s success in terms of visibility in trying to solve everything everywhere.
This made Wauquiez the right man for the job. For one so academically exceptional, it is perhaps odd that his greatest strength is in the low arts of communication. But that, believes the president, is exactly what the EU needs at this time. Since the real policy work is driven from the Elysée and negotiated by ministries, Wauquiez’s job is to tell and re-tell the French that the EU is their “shield” against the full force of financial collapse, rising mortgage rates and higher petrol prices.
Now, says the young auvergnois, faithful to the narrative, and in a naïve echo of his master’s attachment to political will, the EU must expand these defences to “protect” its companies, markets, borders, and cultural and religious heritage. It seems like old Jacques Delors-ian wine served in a new bottle for the generation that voted against the EU’s constitutional treaty five years ago. “If we can change Europe’s software,” he says, “then we will emerge stronger from the crisis.” The language is politically tailored, but also reflects the true instincts of a man who carries both an iPhone and a BlackBerry to update his busy Facebook account.
Ask most people, and the first thing they will say about Wauquiez is that he is young. The second thing is that he is very clever. Raised in Haute-Loire south of Saint-Etienne, he was sent to Paris to study at the élite Lycée Louis-le-Grand before graduating top of his year in history at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and then top again at Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA).
But he is no typical son of the élite. His father left the family home on the Vivarais-Lignon plateau when Wauquiez was a year old and he was brought up by his mother and grandmother. While studying in Paris, the young Roman Catholic also gave classes to disadvan-taged children and, before ENA, he had two spells of charity work with the Association Sœur Emmanuelle in Cairo while he learned Arabic (he already spoke German and English).
On leaving ENA, Wauquiez returned home to Haute-Loire to work for the Conseil d’Etat, an arbitrator for disputes between citizens and the state, and found an influential mentor in Jacques Barrot, the mayor of Yssingeaux and UMP social- affairs minister under then president Jacques Chirac. Within a year, Barrot had chosen Wauquiez as his constitutional stand-in (suppléant) when he ran in the 2002 elections for the national assembly. When Barrot was appointed to the European Commission in 2004, Wauquiez took the seat with 62% of the vote and became the assembly’s youngest deputy, at the age of 29.
For three years, he worked hard at making the Haute-Loire first constituency his own and worked on ‘social Gaullist’ issues such as poverty alleviation, employment, and reform of guardianship laws. In the then raging civil war between the Sarkozystes and the Chiraquiens, the young Wauquiez chose Sarkozy and took the post of national secretary under the party boss. This, as well as his obvious ambition, earned him the enmity of UMP elders Dominique de Villepin and Jean-François Copé, but he found sponsors in François Fillon and Jérôme Monod, a Chirac confidant.
1975: Born, Lyon
2000: Charity work in Egypt with
Association Soeur Emmanuelle
2001: Graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration
2002: Chosen as stand-in to Jacques Barrot in Haute-Loire first constituency
2004: Elected to parliament
2005: National secretary of the UMP
2007: Re-elected deputy for Haute-Loire
2007-08: State secretary to the prime minister, spokesman for the government
2008-10: State secretary for employment
2008: Elected mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay
2010-: Minister for European affairs
In the June 2007 legislative elections, he was re-elected in the first round with 58% and was chosen by Fillon, now prime minister, as a state secretary and the government’s spokesman. Emulating the president’s style, he set about modernising the government’s commun-ications and became known for his many media appearances and regional visits to explain the Sarkozy-Fillon reforms. His high profile helped him win the mayoralty of Le Puy-en-Velay in Haute-Loire from the Socialist incumbent.
This feat so impressed his bosses that he was promoted to state secretary for employment under Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. Leaders of the employers’ and labour organisations still speak highly of him. He was regarded as well-briefed and even-handed. His government colleagues were not always so charitable. His omnipresent, hyperactive, “Super Sarko” side could grate, and some ministers resented his determination to comment on every subject. He lost points inside government when he provided provisional unemployment data that embarrassed then labour minister Xavier Darcos. And he looked rather foolish when he attacked Total, the oil company, in 2009 for announcing 500 redundancies, only for Fillon to reveal that they were not redundancies at all and that the firm was, in fact, creating jobs.
These experiences, plus rumours that he had at one time been excluded from the Sarkozy inner circle for being “leaky”, were a tough lesson for Wauquiez, who is said to be a little more cautious now. He attributes his calm to the restorative effects of life in Vivarais-Lignon with his wife and two children, which rebalances him after what he calls the “destabilising activity” of politics.
Whatever the reasons, his stock is up again in the Elysée, where explaining the protective role of Europe is regarded as a core government task.
Whether he will still be doing this a year from now is uncertain, since Wauquiez is sure to be in the forefront of the president’s re-election campaign. And his ambitions evidently extend farther than winning re-election for Sarkozy. Last year, he formed his own club or mini-party, called La Droite Sociale, that includes around 50 parliamentarians. Turning 36 in April, Wauquiez has only just started out, and he is aiming high.