05/02/2017 11:05 EDT

Stephane Dion Throws Subtle Jab At France's Marine Le Pen

Dion's remarks represent a departure of sorts for the federal government.

OTTAWA – Former Liberal leader Stephane Dion – the prime minister's hand-picked special envoy to Europe – has weighed in on France's fractious election, saying Canada wants the new French leader to keep the country active in the European Union.

Asked about the prospects of French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen winning Sunday's run-off election against the pro-Europe candidate Emmanuel Macron, Dion said Canada prefers the latter.

"We prefer to see at the head of a key country like France in Europe a president who is believing like us, that European integration is an asset for the world," Dion told reporters today.

Stephane Dion, the prime minister's hand-picked special envoy to Europe, appears as a witness at a House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in Ottawa on May 2, 2017. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"We much prefer to have as the president of a friendly country a person that shares our values regarding openness, respect for diversity.

"It's the great tradition of France and I'm optimistic it will prevail and allow Canada and France to work together with the same values."

Dion's remarks represent a departure of sorts for the federal government, which has avoided commenting directly on foreign elections – especially those involving institution-bashing, populist candidates.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently deflected a question about the French election when he hosted Italy's prime minister.

And the Trudeau government steadfastly avoided criticizing or commenting on Donald Trump through the bitter U.S. election and his various pronouncements afterwards.

"We much prefer to have as the president of a friendly country a person that shares our values regarding openness, respect for diversity."

Dion offered his assessment following his testimony before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, where he faced tough questions from Conservative and New Democrat MPs about his new assignment, which comes alongside his posting as ambassador to Germany.

Dion defended his new diplomatic appointment as "special envoy" but not ambassador to the European Union.

The announcement comes three months after the prime minister put forward Dion's name to serve as ambassador to both the EU and Germany, an unusual dual assignment.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent said he saw "seething frustration" within Global Affairs and lots of head scratching in the EU about the double-hatted appointment.

New Democratic critic Helene Laverdiere said she heard complaints about Dion's appointment on a trip to Germany two weeks ago.

Dion says he plans to work hard, travel widely and complement the work of senior diplomats by ensuring there is "pan European approach" to Canada's engagement with the continent.

My role never changed: Dion

He said his job title might have evolved over time after discussions in Canada and with European officials, but the job as originally envisioned by Trudeau, has remained the same.

"This idea never changed. The title changed because it expressed better what the prime minister wanted to do in the beginning."

The Prime Minister's Office has said that making Dion a special envoy followed consultations with European partners, in which "it was agreed that this appointment will best deliver" on Canada's commitment to stronger ties.

Dion, who was foreign affairs minister until he was shuffled out of cabinet earlier this year, is to take up his new positions later this month.

Dion said he would work with the existing mission to the EU and the current ambassador, Daniel Costello.

John McCallum, the former immigration minister who now is ambassador to China, also testified Tuesday about his new job.

McCallum was moved in the same January cabinet shuffle.

Unlike Dion, who took weeks to decide whether to accept a new diplomatic role, McCallum has embraced his new post and is already on the job in Beijing.

McCallum hosted two senior ministers in Beijing last week, Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, both of whom took part in a new senior economic dialogue with China's vice-premier.

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