Biography of Thierry Breton – second French candidate to the European Commissioner role
Aged 64, and an engineer by training, former Economy and Finance Minister Thierry Breton is above all a recognized and respected business leader internationally. He was called in to head several major French IT and telecom companies to rescue them and was quite successful in turning then around.
He has also been successful in making Atos, which he has been running for the past decade, into one of the leading players on the digital market in Europe. He is thus very familiar with the issues in connection with digital services and infrastructure. Active in politics alongside leaders of the Christian democratic right, he is a centrist and advocate of limited reliance on State indebtedness and a staunch defender of the idea that Europe should aspire to be world economic power and not accept a satellite role in global competition.
In recent years, he has spearheaded calls by French and European business leaders to resist domination by Chinese and American companies, advocating a return to policies giving priority to French and European businesses. He has also called for a “data Schengen area” in which data would circulate freely, but only within the boundaries of the European Union.
He is also very knowledgeable about the challenges facing Europe in the economic and financial areas and with the workings of European institutions in Brussels. Although not forming part of President Macron’s inner circle, he supported him in 2016 despite the rebukes of his political family, at a time when the right had chosen a candidate he felt did not share his political convictions.
Born in Paris in 1955, Thierry Breton studied at the prestigious Ecole alsacienne and Lycée Louis le Grand. In 1979, he graduated as an engineer from Supelec, one of the prominent electrical engineering school.
He began work teaching IT and mathematics at the French Lycée in New York before deciding, in 1981, to set up his own company “Forma Systems”, a systems analysis and software engineering firm, and ran it for the next five years.
In 1986, he left New York, resiging as the CEO of his company, to join his political mentor René Monory (several times minister between 1977 and 1988 and former President of the Senate) as “project manager”, to work on the creation of a theme park focused on new technologies and the latest audiovisual technologies, Futuroscope. Among his most notable contributions to the park was the development of what came to be called the Technopole, the technology park at Futuroscope.
Between 1986 and 1992, he served as an elected regional councilor (on a center-right ticket) for Poitou-Charentes and joined the executive team of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former Prime Minister and then President of the Regional Council, as Vice-President. Concomitantly, between 1986 and 1988, he served as advisor to René Monory, then Minister of National Education, on IT and new technology-related matters.
At the end of his term of office, he returned to the Poitou-Charentes region to head the semi-public company managing the Futuroscope’s teleport operations.
In 1990, he returned to the private sector, becoming the Managing Director of the CGI group, a global information technology company.
In 1993, Prime Minister (RPR) Edouard Balladur appointed him to head a task force on teleworking, which produced two reports: Le télétravail en France (1993) and Les Téléservices en France (1994).
Thierry Breton continued his career in IT with Bull, which he joined in 1993 and where he stayed 4 years. He initially served as director of strategy and development before being appointed CEO and Vice Chairman of the Board. In 1995, at the age of 40, he was given a seat on the Board of Directors of the company, becoming the real decision-maker. At a time when the company was in serious difficulty, he succeeded, at least temporarily, in turning around the situation, specifically through the merger of its microcomputing branch with Packard-Bell.
In 1997, he was called in by the Government to save digital products giant, Thomson, which was then on the verge of going under. After five years at its helm, he was able to strategically reposition the group and restore the company’s financial health, allowing the State to progressively divest itself of its holdings in a company into which it had injected €11 billion to recapitalize it just a few years earlier.
At the turn of the century, he was called in to rescue the State-owned company France Télécom. During his 5 years there, he began by reducing the company’s level of indebtedness which, upon his arrival, had stood at €70 billion. Under his leadership the firm successfully entered the high-speed internet market and then the very high-speed market, as well as the mobile phone market. He completed the process of privatizing the group, begun a decade earlier, which was renamed Orange, managing not to generate political controversy or unrest among employees.
During this time he was also appointed to head a task force on cybersecurity by then Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.
In 2005, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, three years into his term of office as Prime Minister, brought Thierry Breton into the government as Economy, Finance and Industry Minister. When Dominique de Villepin became Prime Minister a few months later, he kept Thierry Breton in his ministerial position.
Thierry Breton was behind the vote of a law to “modernize the economy”, to facilitate access to financial markets by small and medium-sized organizations, and to encourage research by promoting employee profit-sharing schemes. He was also one of the first people to make the “intangible economy” into a key priority for the Economy and Finance Ministry. Having himself directed corporations falling within the remit of his ministry, he requested that he be left outside matters in respect of he might have a potential conflict of interest (and was allowed to).
At the end of this ministerial experience in 2007, he was a professor for almost 2 years at Harvard Business School, where he taught a course on Leadership and corporate accountability.
He returned to France 2008 to take the helm of the digital services company, Atos. At its head, he successfully completed the acquisition of Siemens IT Solutions & Services in 2011, that of Bull in 2014 and that of Xerox ITO in 2015, ultimately allowing the group to join the CAC 40 index in 2017. During his time at Atos, the group’s revenue doubled.
During this period, he also worked on furthering European projects, such as the European Cloud Partnership and contributed to the European Commission’s thinking on the Open Cloud.
In 2016, Thierry Breton launched an initiative to create a European security and defense fund, to respond to strategic threats and to European indebtedness. This is the context in which he met the current President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, then German’s Defense Minister. Thierry Breton is also committed to the development in Europe of supercomputers that can rival those of China and the United States.
In line with his center-right political views, he supported former Prime Minister (UMP) Alain Juppé during the right and center primaries in 2016. When the latter failed in the primaries, he supported Emmanuel Macron whom he considered to share similar and compatible political views. He also remained loyal to former President Jacques Chirac and submitted, together with former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a proposal to the Nobel Committee seeking recognition for the efforts made by Jacques Chirac to promote peace.
Thierry Breton is also the author of a few science fiction books.
He has also received many distinctions as a business leader. In 2017, he was included in the Top 100 Best-Performing CEOs by Harvard Business Review (52nd place). He is currently the only French business leader to have been distinguished twice by this publication (in 2010, he had been distinguished for his role at the helm of France Télécom group).
Thierry Breton’s stances on digital issues:
- Thierry Breton was a member of the Steering Committee of the European Cloud initiative (a 2012 EU Commission initiative which aimed at encouraging the public sector to buy cloud offers). In the role, he gave impetus to the idea of creating a free flow of data space within the EU borders that he called a “Schengen of Data”, excluding in fine US companies from it.
- He has often cited the Snowden affair to highlight the need for European cloud offers, but he steadily toned down his remarks, very likely to avoid any fallout for Atos in its main market, the US.
- Thierry Breton has been involved (and supportive) of several government initiatives seeking to build a French “sovereign cloud” but has been less vocal with regards to the latest attempts by Minister Bruno Le Maire to revive the project. This is not very surprising considering the previous failed attempts to create a French cloud offer endorsed by the government.
- Atos has therefore increasingly raised its visibility as a company able to contribute to policy discussions in France and the EU with Thierry Breton at its helm. It has also become a regular participant in large research and development projects funded by the European Commission in quantum computing, cloud computing and is responding to a few new public tenders in France.