Europe’s ‘Tormented History’ Drives an Ambitious Macron Protégé

On a recent visit to Kyiv, Clément Beaune, the French transportation minister, stopped off in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa to pay homage to his Jewish forebears who fled pogroms for France around 1910, only to be deported by French authorities to Auschwitz in 1944 and murdered there by the Nazis.

This was scarcely business as usual for a minister whose habitual obligations include dealing with rail strikes and airport meltdowns. But Mr. Beaune, 42, has earned a reputation as an iconoclast driven by personal conviction, chief among them a passionate identification with the idea of a united Europe.

“I have a small piece of this tormented history in me, and that is the history of all Europeans,” Mr. Beaune, a man of boyish face, candid gaze and artfully unkempt beard, said in an interview. “We are a continent of people, families and nations torn apart. We must recall that the European Union is a daily miracle.”

In Odesa, Mr. Beaune visited the former synagogue where a great-grandfather, Israel Naroditzky, had worshiped. He recalled his maternal grandmother’s stories about Odesa, at the time part of the Russian Empire. He mused on the forces — antisemitism, fascism, communism, imperialism — that fed 20th-century mass murder, including the killings of Mr. Naroditzky, his brother and one of his sons.

A technocrat turned politician, Mr. Beaune has been at President Emmanuel Macron’s side for almost a decade, longer than virtually anyone in the inner presidential circle. The daily newspaper Le Monde has called him Mr. Macron’s “chouchou,” or little pet.

But Mr. Beaune is now off the leash.

Six years into the Macron presidency, he has emerged as the omnipresent gadfly of the administration, a natural communicator ready to talk when others won’t, a risk-taker plotting a big political future, whether as mayor of Paris — a post he covets — or a leader of a reborn center-left. Or perhaps both.

“He’s modest, understated, cultivated, but very ambitious despite appearances,” Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, said in an interview. “And he has now completed a magnificent transition from the shadow of the president.”

In late 2020, Mr. Beaune told Têtu, the country’s most prominent L.G.B.T.Q. magazine: “I am gay and I am comfortable with that.”

In the same interview, he spoke publicly for the first time of the Jewish origins of his maternal family. This was viewed in France as a double coming-out. It was followed in 2021 by combative visits to both Hungary and Poland where Mr. Beaune took on state-backed anti-L.G.B.T.Q. movements.

He denounced the treatment of gays in Poland and the attempts of certain regions to become “L.G.B.T.Q.-free.” In the Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, soon after a fawning visit by the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, he spoke out for “the principles of Europe, which are equality, freedom and nondiscrimination.”

On a continent that had believed itself beyond war and state-sponsored bigotry, only to learn otherwise, it is as if the threads of Mr. Beaune’s life have come together. For him the fight against intolerance is a personal matter.

“If I have talked about my family, and been honest about myself, it is because I believe the great European battle is cultural and civilizational, not against anyone, but for certain values,” he said in his light-filled ministry office in central Paris.

Then there is the brewing political battle in France at a time of great uncertainty. Mr. Macron, facing protest and isolation, is term-limited and will be gone in 2027. He has no obvious successor and the post-Macron survival of his centrist party, Renaissance, is uncertain.

A gaping hole looms at the center of the French political spectrum, leaving the extreme right of Ms. Le Pen and the far left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon as the main forces energized by resentment and frustration.

Enter Mr. Beaune.

“I am a pro-European Social Democrat and that is the idea I will try to defend,” he said. He favors negotiation with labor unions of the kind generally missing during the protracted protests this year against raising the retirement age to 64.

Mr. Macron emerged from the Socialist Party, but his natural home is now widely seen as the center-right. His three most widely-mentioned possible successors — Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister; Bruno Le Maire, the economy and finance minister; and Édouard Philippe, a former prime minister — all lean toward the law-and-order, tough-on-immigration right.

That may suit Mr. Beaune, who believes the moderate center-left forces that took François Mitterrand and François Hollande to the highest office in the land can be revived.

“There’s been an assumption that the center-right will impose itself,” said Stéphane Boujnah, the chief executive of Euronext, a pan-European stock exchange. “But Beaune is to the left of Macron and wants to revive a social democracy built around the middle class, the popular classes, the unions.”

For Mr. Boujnah, who worked closely with Mr. Beaune when he was secretary of state for European affairs from 2020 to 2022, a conspicuous political gift of the minister lies in his ability “to use respectful and comprehensible language. He has nothing of the let-me-lecture-you Davos syndrome.”

The perception of Mr. Macron as aloof has been a persistent source of criticism. Mr. Beaune believes the Republic suffers from excessive “verticality” — an immense concentration of power in the presidency — and has suggested that presidential and parliamentary elections be held separately, not in tandem, to restore significance and heft to the legislative branch.

Mr. Beaune grew up in Paris in a family that merged tormented Jewish history on his mother’s side with placid rural tradition on his father’s. She was a nurse, he was a researcher and teacher. The household was secular; Mr. Beaune never went to church or synagogue. He was a brilliant student, ending up at the elite ENA graduate school that has produced four of the eight presidents of the Fifth Republic, Mr. Macron included.

Last year, however, in elections for the National Assembly, or lower house of Parliament, Mr. Beaune threw off the cosseted life of the “énarque” for political combat in a contested Paris constituency. He trailed a leftist candidate by almost six percentage points in the first round, only to prevail with 50.73 percent of the vote in the second.

“I’d been told not to present myself because it was risky,” Mr. Beaune deadpanned. “Well, it was so risky I almost lost.”

He smiled, as if contemplating life’s twists from some distance. “You know, in politics you need a certain serenity. If you have no ambition, you’re no politician. But if your ambition is devouring, to the point you are always thinking about the next step, you live in great suffering. So I try to hover between the two!”

Would he be the next mayor of Paris, succeeding Anne Hidalgo in 2026? “I hope so,” he said. But, he added, “a week is a long time in politics.”

As he well knows, one former mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, went on to become president.

“He’s a brilliant communicator, but he will inevitably encounter obstacles and enemies, and time will tell if he has the backbone for all that,” Ms. Lagarde said. “I suspect that a certain cunning I’ve noted in him will serve him well.”

Whatever his national ambitions, the construction of a strong and ever more federal Europe remains the great cause of Mr. Beaune’s life, as it has been of Mr. Macron’s. Mr. Beaune worked tirelessly as secretary of state for Europe to secure agreement on the federalization of European debt, long taboo to Germany, an important, even Hamiltonian, moment, in the history of the Union.

“The war in Ukraine has been a great accelerator of European unity,” he said. “The people who have most advanced European integration in recent years, and its determination to achieve strategic autonomy, have been Putin and Trump.”

Both of them equally? “Trump demonstrated to Europeans that we need autonomy, and Putin demonstrated that the danger of war was always there. They were two shocks — not at the same level, of course — and they have changed Europe.”

A Europe that, for Mr. Beaune, remains fragile.

“Any European who has doubts should go to Odesa and Kyiv,” he said. “For Ukraine, under bombs, filling out 1,500 pages of dossiers for eventual European Union membership is nothing less than its candidacy for freedom.”

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