France

After months of speculation, official confirmation finally came on Friday that Ramon Fernandez, one of the central players in Brussels on the French side throughout eurozone crisis negotiations, will step down as head of the French Treasury at the end of June.

He will be replaced by Bruno Bézard, 51, currently director general of public finances at the finance ministry and a figure firmly in the tradition of French haut functionnaires: a graduate of both Ena and L’Ecole Polytechnique, the elite graduate schools, he was an economic adviser to former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and has headed the APE, the agency that holds most of the state’s big company shareholdings.

Fernandez, 46, an amiable figure who combines formidable technical skills with an impish sense of humour, found himself in an uncomfortable position after the election in 2012 of President François Hollande. Firmly identified with the centre-right, Fernandez was appointed in 2009 by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and was regarded with deep suspicion by many on the socialist left, notably the voluble Arnaud Montebourg, now economy and industry minister. The directeur du Trésor is a powerful position as the senior civil servant in the finance ministry empire. Read more

Dijsselbloem, right, meeting Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras in Athens this morning.

As part of the big Franco-German deal announced last night in Paris, President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel took everyone by surprise by announcing they now want a permanent head of the so-called eurogroup, the committee of 17 eurozone finance ministers that does all the heavy lifting on regional economic policy, including bailouts.

The timing of the agreement (it’s on page 8 of the nine-page “contribution”, which we’ve posted here) is a bit awkward, since a new part-time eurogroup chairman was appointed just six months ago: Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

Most EU officials view the deal as more an effort at Franco-German rapprochement than an attempt to force Dijsselbloem out, despite the fact he has stirred controversy in his short tenure in the job. As one senior official put it, agreeing to language that eurozone reforms “could include” a permanent eurogroup chair “is not exactly ousting someone”.

We here at Brussels Blog asked the FT’s man in Amsterdam, Matt Steinglass, to send us the reaction from Dijsselbloem’s homeland:

There is surprise and a bit of resentment. Dijsselbloem was forced to issue a hasty statement that he did not support the move and would not accept the position if it meant he could no longer serve as finance minister.

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This issue has always been a potential dealbreaker: how will Germany’s politically powerful network of small public banks — or Sparkassen — sit under the bailiwick of a single bank supervisor? Until now we’ve mainly seen diplomatic shadow-boxing on the matter. But that fight is beginning in earnest.

As is the custom in Brussels, some ambiguous and unclear summit conclusions are helping spur things along. Chancellor Angela Merkel last week hailed a one particular sentence as a breakthrough for Germany: that the European Central Bank would “be able, in a differentiated way, to carry out direct supervision” over eurozone banks.

To her, that vague language was recognition that the Sparkassen would be treated differently — the ECB would concentrate on big banks and those that are facing troubles, and leave the rest to national authorities. Read more

In our interview published today with Michel Barnier, the silver-haired Frenchman who oversees the EU’s financial system, he talks in great depth about the future of banking regulation and his relationship with François Hollande.

EU commissioner Michel Barnier

EU commissioner Michel Barnier

For Barnier, the election back home not only brought him a new French president to deal with, but also a mixed legacy for his political home, the centre-right UMP. The party’s standard-bearer Nicolas Sarkozy used the waning days of the campaign to openly court voters who had supported the far-right National Front through anti-EU rhetoric.

In addition to threatening to pull France out of the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone, Sarkozy regularly belittled the European Commission and urged “buy French” policies that violated the EU’s common market.

In our hour-long interview, Barnier insisted that such Europe-bashing was only the result of overheated politics ahead of a contentious vote. “I think you have to put to one side the electoral campaign,” he said, citing UMP party luminaries like François Fillon and Alain Juppé who have strong pro-European pedigrees.

Still, Barnier said he intends to actively insert himself in the post-Sarkozy debate about the UMP’s future – though he assiduously declined to say what role him himself might play in that new party. Read more

Welcome to our rolling coverage of the reaction to elections in France and Greece on a big day for Europe.

By Tom Burgis, John Aglionby and Esther Bintliff in London with contributions from FT correspondents around the world. All times are London time.

This post should update automatically every few minutes, although it might take longer on mobile devices.

12.44 Borzou Daragahi, the FT’s north Africa correspondent, reports on the response to the French election results in the Arab world:

Across a region undergoing tumultous change, many greeted the fall of Nicolas Sarkozy with glee, hopeful it would spell the end of French foreign policies considered too Atlantacist, pro-Israel and anti-immigrant.

Though many Libyans hailed Mr Sarkozy for his role in spearheading Nato’s help in toppling Col Muammer Gaddafi, others remember his administration’s cozy ties with deposed Tunisian leader Zein el Abidine ben Ali and Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak.

Ties between Tunisia’s new government, dominated by a coalition of Islamists and leftists, and France have grown particularly strained. In an interview with the FT in January, Islamist party leader Rachid Ghannouchi accused France of arrogantly giving Tunisia ‘lessons’ on economic and social policy despite its own problems.

Mustapha Ben Jaafar speaking on April 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages 

Mustapha Ben Jaafar on April 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

After Mr Sarkozy’s defeat, Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian parliament and leader of the left-leaning Ettakatol party, hailed François Hollande’s arrival as way to update bilateral relations.

“We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries,” he said in a statement. “With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity.”

12.22 The election results in Greece testify to widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s mainstream conservative and socialist parties. Voters have punished the political groups they see as jointly responsible for the economic crisis, with once marginal groups rapidly gaining ground.

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Baltic Sea fisherman. Image by Getty

Has the UK lost its influence in Europe? That has become the conventional wisdom in Brussels after prime minister David Cameron last week spurned France and Germany by refusing to sign up to a new “fiscal compact” to further integrate the bloc’s economies.

A first indication may come over the next 24 hours, during which a group of bleary-eyed ministers will try to close an agreement on the European Union’s annual fisheries quotas. Unlikely as it may seem, the UK is expected to get its way because it has rounded up support from France and Germany.

The December fisheries council is one of Brussels’ quirky annual rites and arguably the world’s ultimate fish market. Working late into the night, European diplomats barter quotas on scores of salt water species – from North Sea cod to the nephrop norvegicus – to piece together a comprehensive agreement governing the fisheries of the world’s biggest seafood consumer.

As my colleague, Andrew Bolger, reported in Thursday’s FT, Scotland’s fishing industry is nervous, thanks to Cameron’s defiance. Read more

It will be Luxembourg that will have the final say on Brussels versus Strasbourg, now that Paris has decided to sue under Lisbon.

In other words, the fight over the seat of the European Parliament has suddenly become a full-blown EU inter-institutional brawl.

The French government on Tuesday decided to take the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg after parliamentarians last week decided to tweak the terms of their regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg. Paris claims the move violates the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, its governing constitution. Read more

Paris lost no time in rebutting yesterday’s study suggesting members of the European Parliament would rather end the monthly to-and-fro between Brussels and Strasbourg.

A statement released by the foreign ministry on Friday was a Gallic blend of rebuke, snub and curtness.

“The question of the seats is judicially mandated by the treaties: these are applicable to member states and to institutions alike,” it reads. Read more

There are plenty of things to like about Strasbourg – the Christmas market, the soaring cathedral and the ambient spirit of Franco-German reconciliation. But you might not want to visit the place 12 times a year.

That appears to be the verdict of members of the European Parliament, who – in one of the European Union’s stranger rituals – decamp to the Alsatian capital roughly once a month for a plenary session. Accompanying them on their journey from Brussels are thousands of journalists, assistants and diplomats – as well as a special trainload of files.

But a new study commissioned by Briton Edward McMillan-Scott, a Liberal Democrat MEP, indicates that 91 per cent of MEPs and their staff find the trip intolerable and would prefer to stay put in Brussels. Schlepping to Strasbourg is inefficient, they say, and takes a toll on their work and emotional life. Read more

In today’s paper, fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal has a nice scoop about a letter France and Germany sent to European Union officials announcing their formal objections to including Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area, the visa-free travel zone that most EU members are part of.

Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, has already responded this morning by calling the letter a “discriminatory act against Romania,” and vowing to fight the move.

Because the issue could get even hotter, especially since the incoming Hungarian presidency had made Bulgarian and Romanian Schengen membership such a priority, we thought we should post the letter here, with some annotations of our own. Read more