PARIS — In Greek mythology, a three-headed dog named Cerberus watches over the entrance to the underworld. At France’s finance ministry, at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, the equivalent was a small, undernourished cat.
For the past three months, the institution known as “Bercy” has been at the center of France’s efforts to offset the hellish impact of the coronavirus crisis. The question now — as countries around the world look toward life after lockdown — is whether the ministry and its top official, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, can bring the country’s economy back to life.
“We absorbed the shock, but we absorbed it with €110 billion of spending [and €315 billion of state-guaranteed loans] in France,” Le Maire told POLITICO in an interview late last month. “Now we are entering the second phase and it is going to be much harder.”
It was the end of a long day, and Le Maire, sunk into a beige leather chair, seemed to have dropped his guard.
The finance ministry had pushed through massive bailouts for French industrial flagships like Air France, expanded unemployment benefits for the country’s workers and put in place a €3.3 billion “solidarity fund” for small and medium-sized businesses affected by the coronavirus crisis.
“He’s a cold and analytical machine” — Former colleague on Bruno Le Maire
And yet, a wave of bankruptcies and layoffs — predictable but nonetheless painful — was putting intense pressure on the French economy and the man tasked with nursing it back to health.
“We’re moving into the phase which I think is the most difficult, the most complex: the transition period, where the patient comes out of the hospital, still can’t fully stand on his own two feet, but he’s all alone,” Le Maire said.
“There are no more nurses, no more caregivers, no more doctors, no more oxygen, no more hospital bed, no more support,” he added. “He’s all alone and he’s a bit hesitant about what he’s going to be able to do.”
POLITICO was granted access to the minister and his entourage during two days in late April and mid-May as Le Maire was preparing to do battle — in France, against the devastation being wrought by the coronavirus, and in Europe, as he and French President Emmanuel Macron worked to close a deal on a pan-European response to the crisis.
What emerged was a portrait of a man — and an institution — struggling to counter the unprecedented economic impact of an unexpected pandemic, and painfully aware that whatever measures are put in place, they are unlikely to be enough.
A chemically pure product of France’s elite education for top-level public servants, Le Maire has served as a diplomat, a political adviser, the secretary of state for European affairs and the minister for agriculture under former President Nicolas Sarkozy — who used to call him “Baby Bruno,” a swipe at a perceived rival.
“He’s a cold and analytical machine,” said a former colleague of Le Maire in a 2005 interview. Le Maire has silver hair and an aristocratic composure, but his dark blue eyes sometimes betray a tinge of amusement. Even when having casual conversations, he structures his arguments carefully. His preferred tone is a mix of polite distance, authority, attentiveness and paternalism — he’s a father of four boys.
As a politician, Le Maire has also cultivated a rebellious streak — albeit one very much in line with his grand bourgeois upbringing — as a sometimes-risqué novelist.
“Politics has the gift of pulling you out of your narrow milieu,” he wrote in one of his 10 books, “Jours de pouvoirs.”
Nobody would mistake Le Maire for a rock-and-roller (he once saw Mick Jagger in the streets but did not recognize him). But as a student of French literature in university, he was an avowed fan of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, and he began to favor friendly happy hours, with a glass of whisky or two, over early morning mass with his devout family.
At about the same time, to pay the bills, he started to write cheap romance novels, including one about a nurse madly in love, under the pseudonym Duc Williams.
As Le Maire has climbed the political ranks, his opponents have sometimes tried to use his writing against him, quoting for example an explicit autobiographical love scene with his wife in Venice in his book “Le Ministre.”
They haven’t had much success. Le Maire has used his image as a bon vivant who loves literature to distinguish himself in the fragmented political landscape created by Macron’s demolition of the traditional political parties.
Bruno Le Maire works at his desk in Bercy | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
His books are selling and he is one of the government’s most popular ministers.
Before the coronavirus, Le Maire was one of France’s most visible public officials internationally, championing a digital tax on tech giants (a proposal now mired in technical discussions at the OECD) and building strong, high-profile relationships with his counterparts in Germany, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, whom he calls several times a week.
But with the French economy headed rapidly downward, he has also turned to the world of words for advice, consulting not only with economists but also literary luminaries like Michel Houellebecq, a controversial novelist known for his dark view of humanity.
“He has a slightly more pessimistic vision than mine, I’d say, but in general he’s quite lucid about the world and about people,” Le Maire said.
The finance ministry’s feline guardian was the sole moving presence in late April outside what the French sometimes refer to as “La forteresse de Bercy” — a colossal office complex on the banks of the River Seine.
Odorless roses under a low-lidded sky offered the only other traces of life on the lonely 500-meter gravel-lined walk to the entrance of the Hôtel des Ministres where Le Maire has his office — and one of the best views of Paris.
President Macron, European Commissioner Thierry Breton, European Central Bank Chief Christine Lagarde and Sarkozy all once held the top job at Bercy, but only Lagarde stayed for more than a couple of years.
Le Maire is already into his fourth year as minister, and so far it has seemed his aim has been to stay in office as long as possible. “When your country is affected by the most serious economic crisis in its modern history, it is not time to leave, it is time to stay,” he said.
What will French President Emmanuel Macron do with his prime ministerial position? | François Mori/AFP via Getty Images
Statements like that haven’t stopped French commentators from speculating that the finance minister has his eyes on a higher office — if and when Macron decides to replace Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
Le Maire’s relentless media presence has done little to quell the rumors.
Since the crisis began on March 1, Le Maire has given at least 18 radio and television interviews on prime time and shared 51 pictures on Instagram, including casual pictures of him in the elevator of Bercy or of his guinea pig Jackie.
The minister also has a team of international press advisers, who send him daily reports on how France’s actions are perceived in other EU countries. “He reads everything,” said a finance ministry official. He is also one of the few French officials who gives interviews to foreign media, most often to press for an EU-level response to the coronavirus crisis.
In Le Maire’s words, this outreach is simply a way of “remaining active on the field” and informing the public of the work of a ministry often little understood by the French.
With 42 kilometers of gray, office-flanked corridors and a lingering smell of cold tobacco (surprisingly, since smoking has been forbidden since 2007), the Bercy office complex epitomizes the aesthetics of 1980s French bureaucracy: cold, imposing, linear.
It’s a visual reflection of the staid, conservative, technocratic culture that Macron tried to disrupt during his time as finance minister with the vocabulary of the world of startups.
Macron’s disruption didn’t stick — aside from a foosball table in the marble hall, now covered in plastic to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Bercy remains a top-down organization. That proved useful when its 5,000 people had to start working remotely as France went under lockdown.
Left: A malnourished cat at the entrance to Bercy. Right: A foosball table now covered in plastic to in the ongoing battle against the coronavirus| Photos by Elisa Braun/POLITICO
Even in Bercy’s well-oiled machine, the gloomy prospects of a post-coronavirus era have eroded the troops’ morale. “I’ve had this dream several times now where I’ve been deprived of my freedom,” said one finance ministry official. “It’s really something that worries me, the feeling of being constrained.”
When POLITICO first spoke to Le Maire at the end of April, he was concerned. He was worried that France’s economic trajectory — still not fully recovered from the Yellow Jacket movement and a wave of strikes over a proposed pension reform — would suddenly deteriorate.
He was worried about his personal prospects, how they too could suddenly take a turn for the worse. “Political mistakes, in times like these, are paid for immediately,” he said. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way in 2016, according to a close political adviser, when a promising start during the French conservative presidential primary ended in a humiliating 2.4 percent showing.
“The real risk for the European Union is that it could break up” — Bruno Le Maire, French finance minister
Two weeks later, he was worried too about the pressures that an uneven recovery could have on the rest of the Europe, and what that would mean for a government that has put its continental ambitions at the center of its raison d’être.
“The real risk for the European Union is that it could break up,” he said. “Having countries that are doing very well economically and others that are lagging behind within the same monetary zone, that is simply unacceptable.”
Three days later, Macron joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel by teleconference to jointly announce a Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion coronavirus recovery fund, financed by debt issued by the EU and backed by all 27 members.
The economic shock that struck France marked the end of a period in which the finance ministry had put the country on a path to lower unemployment and faster economic growth.
Eight weeks of confinement have cost the French economy €120 billion, according to the French Observatory of Economic Conditions (OFCE), of which around €40 billion has been borne by businesses that have seen revenues collapse. France’s GDP is projected to drop by 8 percent this year, and its public debt is expected to reach unprecedented levels.
In addition to the layoffs and bankruptcies, France has profound narcissistic wounds to heal, as many of its reasons for pride — tourism, cuisine, wine, fashion — may not be compatible with the art de vivre under the coronavirus.
As Le Maire contemplated France’s next chapter, he veered into the literary.
“There are two topics that are extraordinarily interesting as reasons for reflection today, and that is distance and slowness — which are not, between you and me, my main personal characteristics,” he said.
“We had the tsunami. The levee held, but the sea will recede and we will see bankruptcies, layoffs” — Bruno Le Maire
The epidemic, he said — and its likely origins in wildlife — were a dramatic warning about the fragility of the earth’s ecosystem. “We put ourselves at risk by not reestablishing the distances between the worlds on the planet we inhabit,” he added.
“And then there is the slowness,” he said. “We were accustomed in our professions to having hectic lives, where we could do Paris-Rome, Rome-Berlin in the same day.”
That loss of ease of travel, he said, could have harmful implications when it comes to governing, especially at the EU level.
“Negotiation takes place around a table,” he said.” Sometimes we isolate ourselves in small groups, sometimes we come together. If we had such difficulty in concluding the agreement on economic support, I think that the fact that we were not together played a big part. We need to be together.”
The crisis, he said, has the potential to threaten the European democratic model.
Bruno Le Maire surveys an office which is under pressure like rarely before | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
“We must be well aware of this: The hardest part is yet to come,” Le Maire said.
Pouring rain was falling on his office’s panoramic windows.
“We had the tsunami,” he said. “The levee held, but the sea will recede and we will see bankruptcies, layoffs. And that is when we will have to adapt our system and provide very strong responses.”
Outside, in the complex’s deserted courtyard, even the small cat was gone.