PARIS — After Emmanuel Macron’s first choice for the next European Commission, Sylvie Goulard, was shot down by MEPs, speculation swirled about his plan B.
So when Macron announced that his man was Thierry Breton, there was an awful lot of googling (and doubtless a few people confused him with a famous chef who champions the cuisine of Brittany but would probably be a less appropriate choice for a portfolio that spans the internal market, defense and digital issues).
Breton has high-level political experience — having been France’s minister of the economy, finance and industry from 2005 to 2007 under Jacques Chirac — and a long career in the private sector, lately leading one of the country’s rare digital champions, Atos. But not everyone was keen. “It is incomprehensible and a risky choice for Macron,” said a high-level French official with knowledge of EU issues. “Breton is brilliant, very smart, and has a lot of ideas but he is a man of utmost arrogance, and that ego has harmed him a lot in his career.”
But what else do we know about the man who (MEPs permitting) will be France’s member of the Ursula von der Leyen Commission?
He’s into sci-fi
Back in 1984, Breton co-wrote a science fiction novel called “Softwar” based around the National Software Agency (which in no way resembles the U.S. National Security Agency). Billed as a “technology thriller,” the novel’s plot is centered on an American cyberattack on Soviet computers. “At the time no one was speaking about viruses, the word didn’t exist,” Breton said, according to Liberation.
However, his co-author Denis Beneich later claimed Breton “never wrote a word of this novel” although “he had the idea for it.”
Breton, whose Commission portfolio would include the space industry, wrote two other novels in the mid to late 1980s — “Vatican III” and “Netwar” (all three of his books are worth checking out, if only for the cover art).
His love of sci-fi doesn’t stop with books, however. Breton also helped come up with the idea for a high-tech theme park called “Futuroscope” in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou, just north of Poitiers in western France. Its tag-line is “Expect the unexpected,” which sounds like good advice ahead of a hearing before the European Parliament.
He hates email
Europe’s likely next digital chief is not a fan of email. So much so that in 2011 he said he hadn’t sent a single work email in his first three years as CEO of Atos, one of Europe’s largest IT companies. “If people want to talk to me, they can come and visit me, call or send me a text message,” he said. “Emails cannot replace the spoken word.”
Internal emails are banned at Atos, replaced by instant messaging and a Facebook-style interface. By 2016, email traffic at the company was down 60 percent, according to the Harvard Business Review. Employees who don’t send any emails while maintaining productivity are known as “Zero Heroes” (no jokes about Eurocrats, please).
European defense fund champion
In 2016, before Macron began annoying his fellow leaders — chiefly Angela Merkel and Donald Trump — with his European defense ambitions, Breton pitched a European defense fund to none other than his potential future boss, Ursula von der Leyen, who at the time was Germany’s defense minister. On his blog, Breton wrote that “Europe has let its guard down at the very time when the need for security and cyber security has never been more pressing.”
He wrote that the first goal of his European Security and Defence Fund would be to take on “all or part of the accumulated debts contracted by the Member States for the purposes of defence since the introduction of the euro.”
A bunch of MEPs won’t scare him
In July, two men wearing ski-masks and gloves and wielding handguns broke into Breton’s Paris home, beat him and locked him up along with his wife and their live-in chauffeur. The thieves made off with a diamond bracelet worth €50,000 and several hundred euros in cash, according to AFP.
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