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PARIS — Thierry Breton, Europe’s self-proclaimed digital “enforcer” and scourge of Elon Musk, has his eye on one of the biggest jobs in Brussels: President of the EU Commission.
Emmanuel Macron may be about to give him a leg up.
Macron’s Renaissance party is frantically searching for the best candidate to lead its campaign in next year’s European Parliament elections. Whoever gets that role would be well placed to become the party’s nominee to take over from Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president when her term ends after the elections next June.
According to reports in French media, and officials familiar with discussions inside Macron’s team, Breton, a flamboyant former telecoms executive and France’s current EU commissioner, is now firmly in the mix.
“Everyone knows he wants to continue,” a French diplomat told POLITICO when asked about Breton’s future chances. “Some are wondering whether he doesn’t need to run as a lead candidate if he wants to carry on as EU commissioner.”
The job of running the Commission, the 27-country bloc’s executive arm, has become one of the most powerful roles in world politics. Von der Leyen is the EU’s most visible public official, regularly meeting world leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, and has been the public face of the bloc’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Her post is due to fall vacant next summer when the top positions in the Brussels institutions are all carved up after the European Parliament elections.
Von der Leyen has yet to declare whether she’s keen to stay on for a second term, and has been linked to other high-profile positions such as the top job at NATO.
It’s not yet known what the process will be for choosing the president of the Commission next year. In theory, the EU’s political parties will put forward their own pre-determined lead candidate who will spend the European election campaign setting out their vision to voters, in a system known in Brussels jargon as the Spitzenkandidaten process.
Under this system, the candidate from the party that wins the most votes and seats in the European Parliament would be in pole position to get the job of Commission chief.
But while that was how the Commission president was chosen in 2014, it’s not the way the process worked in 2019, when von der Leyen was a late pick for the job, having not stood as a lead candidate in the elections herself.
The French establishment is not traditionally in favor of the Spitzenkandidat system since it takes the power to decide the Commission presidency out of the hands of national leaders. So even if Breton were to become the lead candidate for Macron’s Renew party, he’d still need to convince the French president he is worthy of backing for the top job in Brussels.
Breton is a powerful and ambitious commissioner whose role has ballooned in recent months to include digital policy. He has become known in the EU capital as the embodiment of France’s statist economic vision, pushing to loosen up subsidy rules and take the trade fight to the U.S. and China.
Last week, he took part in a high-profile French television show — “Quotidien” — and smiled broadly during a sequence about his rumored presidential ambitions.
If Breton were to lead the French Renaissance list in next year’s election, his political weight would make him a natural choice for Spitzenkandidat for Renew.
Speculation that Breton is aiming for the EU’s top job has been rife for months now, as the commissioner is taking great delight in not denying it. During a POLITICO interview last year, the Frenchman playfully even joked that he could be a “plan B” Commission president one day.
Last weekend, Breton denied that he had been approached to run in the European elections. “Have I been called? No. Have I been asked to become lead candidate for the [Renew party] at the European elections? No,” he said on French television LCI.
But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t accept the task if he were asked. And there’s growing speculation in France that Macron could back him.
“He was Mister Vaccines during COVID. He’s the one who is defending the electric car for a decarbonized world. He embodies Europe that changes the daily lives of citizens,” Les Echos cited an adviser to Macron as saying about Breton’s qualities as a possible candidate.
While Breton might be more obviously in phase with Macron’s thinking, several French officials told POLITICO that Paris also views a second term for von der Leyen favorably.
Several other names are circulating to become the lead candidate for Renew in the EU elections in France, including the head of the liberal Renew Europe bloc in the European Parliament, Stéphane Séjourné.
One French diplomat, however, cast doubt on whether running in the next EU election would help Breton in his potential quest to run the Commission, given that Macron’s Renew party is unlikely to win enough seats to have the decisive say.
According to several French officials, the French president, who is notorious for taking last-minute decisions on weighty appointments, has not yet made up his mind about who he’ll back for Commission president.
In the end, it may all come down to Macron’s personal choice, alongside the usual backroom horse trading that Brussels is known for. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess who wins.
Laura Kayali, Nicholas Vinocur and Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.