PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist heavyweight Laurent Fabius, named as foreign minister on Wednesday, shares President Francois Hollande’s vision of making French diplomacy more independent of the United States while holding to a firm line on Iran and Syria.
Fabius, 65, is the oldest and most experienced minister in Hollande’s new government, having served as budget, industry and finance minister under past Socialists administrations and as a modernizing prime minister from 1984 to 1986.
Bald with a somber and statesmanlike demeanor, he led the “no” campaign that defeated a European Union constitution in a 2005 referendum amid bitter infighting in the Socialist party. He has softened his stance on the EU since then.
Fabius is expected to continue the work of outgoing Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who has taken a hard line in demanding an end to repression by the Syrian government and threatening international intervention if France can win U.N. authorization.
“It’s not going to change much. He resembles Juppe in stature and looks. He has served the state, has dignity and calmness,” said Dominique Moisi, a founder of the IFRI foreign relations think-tank in Paris. “He is a left-wing Juppe.”
Fabius’ gravitas may prove a welcome foil for Hollande, a career politician who has never held a ministerial post, as he embarks on an intensive round of diplomacy starting this weekend with back-to-back G8 and NATO summits in the United States.
“It’s a good move. He is a professional and of an extremely high standard. I think the differences will be minimal,” said a French diplomat briefed ahead of the appointment.
Hollande, 57, is due to meet Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday before those meetings. He has pledged that under his leadership, Paris will be a reliable ally for Washington, but will not be tied to it.
Insiders say Fabius will seek to ensure France retains its autonomy within the western alliance, allowing it to forge closer ties with emerging powers. During the campaign, he was tasked by Hollande with visiting Beijing to establish contacts but left after obtaining no senior-level appointments.
The son of a wealthy antique dealer, Fabius is expected to appoint an Arabist to lead his cabinet.
While the new government is broadly in agreement with existing policy on Iran and Syria, Hollande has pledged to pledged to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan by end-2012 - a year ahead of a deadline set by former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“If I were to sum up the changes, I’d say there will less negative emotion towards Turkey and less positive emotion towards Israel,” Moisi said. “The euro zone crisis and the rise of emerging nations will drive the agenda. Policy will be reactive like in the last five years.”
The youngest prime minister of the Fifth Republic when he took office at 37 under President Francois Mitterrand in 1984, Fabius oversaw the closure of loss-making steel plants and helped restore budget discipline after Mitterrand’s profligate first two years.
Fabius has long been one of the Socialist party’s so-called “elephants”, powerful faction leaders. His return to government comes despite a rivalry with Hollande, whom he once nicknamed “wild strawberry” for hiding in the undergrowth.
Their rivalry flared when Fabius led opposition to the EU constitutional treaty that Hollande supported.
A graduate of the elite ENA civil service school, Fabius competed against Segolene Royal and Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2007 to run as the Socialist presidential candidate that year.
Despite supporting Socialist leader Martine Aubry in the party’s primary contest last year, Fabius made it up to Hollande by admitting he had underestimated the new president.
Two scandals tarnished his record: the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior by French agents in New Zealand, in which a photographer died, and the deadly infection of hundreds of hemophiliacs with HIV-tainted blood transfusions.
Fabius said he was unaware of the covert operation to stop efforts to disrupt nuclear tests in French Polynesia.
In the contaminated blood affair, Fabius asked for his own immunity to be lifted so he could stand trial and was acquitted in 1999. The court found that his actions as prime minister had speeded up a decision to screen blood donors for the AIDS virus, but the affair long overshadowed his political career.
Reporting by John Irish; editing by Paul Taylor and Geert De Clercq