X Close

Michel Barnier could be the next French president The former Brexit negotiator can no longer be ignored

France's next President? (JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)


October 20, 2021   7 mins

In 1965, at the age of 14, a young man called Michel joined the Gaullist political movement — then called the UD-Vème.

By 1968, he was a member of the UDR. In 1976 he was a rising young star in the RPR. He was elected in 1978 France’s youngest member of parliament, aged 27.

In 2002, he joined the newly created UMP party and was appointed foreign minister under President Jacques Chirac. In 2015, he became a member of Les Républicains — in a gap between his second stint as European Commissioner and his appointment as Monsieur Brexit, the European Union’s chief negotiator on British departure.

We speak of course of Michel Barnier, detested by British Brexiteers, admired by British Remainers. Is Barnier an ideologically adjustable Vicar of Bray, version française? No, not at all. Barnier has belonged to five parties but never changed his political coat. The Gaullist or wider centre-Right movements repeatedly altered their names and their geometry. Barnier remained loyal to all of them.

Six months before a compelling French presidential election, Michel Barnier’s party-political life-story is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, it helps to explain why Barnier has emerged as favourite to be chosen as the presidential candidate of the main French centre-Right party in a closed primary in early December. The 90,000 or so “militants” (members) of Les Républicains (LR) face a choice on 4 December between three no-hopers and three uninspiring, senior candidates, two of whom left the party four years ago. Internal polls suggest that members are turning — more in desperation than in expectation — to Barnier, a man who has always stuck by the party (whatever its name or policy du jour happened to be).

Secondly, the potted history of Barnier’s life and times also explains why Barnier, aged 70, may never be the President of the Republic. If he does become the centre-Right nominee, he could yet be the man who saves his political family from oblivion. More likely, he may be remembered as the last chieftain of a troubled, political dynasty which stretches from Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy.

After decades of shape-shifting, dividing, uniting, back-stabbing, trampling spending rules, breaking the law, the French centre-Right is running out of ideological and electoral road. Part of its territory — nationalist, anti-European, anti-migration, socially conservative — was conquered years ago by Marine Le Pen. Another part, liberal socially and economically, pro-European, was annexed in 2017 by Emmanuel Macron. A further chunk of harder centre-Right opinion, more educated and better-heeled than Lepennist voters, is migrating to the xenophobic essayist and TV pundit, Eric Zemmour.

As a result, none of the leading contenders to be the Les Républicains’s candidate in the first round of the presidential election on 10 April is sure of reaching the two-candidate second round on 24 April.

Best placed in national — as opposed to internal — opinion polls is Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern French region, Hauts-de-France, followed by Valérie Pécresse, president of the greater Paris region, Ile-de-France. Michel Barnier comes a poor third — with an average of polls giving him only 11% of the Round One vote, far short of the likely 17 to 20% “entry ticket” to Round Two.

Why would LR party members vote for the “weakest” candidate nationally in their closed primary on 4 December? Is this another example of the perpetual instinct for self-harm of French small-c conservatives — once described as the “stupidest centre Right” in the world?

Possibly. Then again, the election is six months away; public opinion is relatively volatile; only 60% of those questioned offer an opinion to pollsters; and Zemmour’s rapid rise could prove as ephemeral as similar irruptions in past French presidential elections.

Barnier’s supporters point to the fact that his candidature was mocked when he entered the race in August. He was, many pundits said, too dull, too closely associated with Brussels and too little known in France to win the centre-Right nomination. Yet two months later, he looks odds-on to be selected. According to an internal poll, Barnier is approved by 58% of LR members, Pécresse by 52%, and Bertrand by only 38%.

Other than his unbroken membership of Gaullist parties for half a century, Barnier has seduced the LR membership. He could be “our Joe Biden,” they suggest — old and underestimated. Others say that the tall, patrician-looking Barnier has “the face of a President”. In other words, he is not the bland Xavier Bertrand and he is not Valerie Pécresse; competent, likeable but undeniably and — unacceptably to many French conservatives — a woman.

Barnier has also pulled off a great coup, which could yet come back to haunt him. He has called for a referendum on whether France should suspend parts of the EU and Council of Europe treaties to allow a three to-five-year moratorium on migration (though not asylum seeking).

This was greeted by the British media — and some in France — as an act of breath-taking hypocrisy. After years of lecturing the British on the drawbacks of leaving the EU, here was Barnier suggesting that France should step outside the European treaties to “take back control” of immigration policy.

The truth is a little more complicated. Barnier’s point is that the EU has no coherent policy for external immigration and therefore national governments should have the right to create their own. As things stand, he says, the European courts interpret their respective treaties in ways that make this impossible.

The EU referendum initiative, however limited, changed Barnier’s image as an uncompromising Brussels technocrat. It gave him a role — before the rise of Zemmour — in the debate on migration which may shape the election. On both counts, it endeared Barnier to the harder line members who remain in the French centre-Right.

On other issues, however, he remains a fervent European. He called last weekend for the increased “mutualisation” of national economic policies to prevent Europe from being marginalised by China and the United States in the decades ahead.

If Barnier does win Les Républicains nomination, his apparent ambivalence on Europe will be lambasted by Zemmour, Le Pen and by some Left-wing candidates as an example of elitist group-think. The idea of a “mutualised” Europe may also jar with many members of Les Républicains. What remains of the party is close to LePennism.

The nationalist-authoritarian drift of the LR membership is sometimes compared to what happened to the US Republican party under Donald Trump or the British Conservative Party via Boris Johnson and Brexit. There are points of comparison but the battle for the soul of the French centre-Right is much older.

In 1976, Jacques Chirac created the Rassemblement pour La République (RPR) to replace what was left of the old Gaullist movement — and as a luxury bulldozer for his personal use. The more economically liberal, socially moderate and reformist wing of the centre-Right united loosely behind President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in an alliance called the Union pour la Democratie Francaise (UDF).

Chirac’s party was supposed to be nationalist-authoritarian and rural, socially conservative and economically interventionist. But it had a pro-European, economically liberal wing too. These two broad strands of the French centre-Right cooperated and tripped each other up for two decades. Chirac seesawed from one viewpoint to the other (while funding the RPR party by embezzling millions of francs from the Paris town hall where he was mayor).

In 2002, after Marine Le Pen’s father reached the second round of the Presidential election, Chirac skilfully exploited the crisis to merge his RPR with part of the more European-minded UDF.

This new centre-Right party (the UMP) was hijacked by Nicolas Sarkozy before his presidential victory in 2007. Like Chirac — but more energetically — Sarkozy attempted to ride the twin horses of the French centre-Right. Like Chirac, he played fast and loose with the rules. And like Chirac before him, he was sentenced to jail last month for fraudulently circumventing campaign financing laws.

The French centre-Right adores law and order — for others. The last two centre-Right French Presidents were given jail sentences for corruption. Three of the last six French centre-Right prime ministers have been convicted of criminal offences after leaving office.

This miserable record — three of the last six French centre-Right prime ministers have been convicted of criminal offences after leaving office — has left a legacy of personal loathing within the main centre-Right party to date. The party changed its name to Les Républicains in 2015 to distance itself from a damaged “UMP” brand. But two years later, the centre-Right failed to make the second round of a presidential election for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. After its candidate, François Fillon, was accused of fiddling his parliamentary expenses, Emmanuel Macron carved off a chunk of the “centrist-liberal-European” wing. Marine Le Pen took some of the nationalist-authoritarians.

Following Macron’s victory, the LR party membership subsided from over 200,000 to 80,000 at the start of this year. It is now 90,000 and rising. This membership surge may or may not allow Bertrand, or less likely, Pécresse, to overtake Barnier and snatch the nomination. Most people’s money is on Barnier.

If he does win, he will take on a heavy, historical responsibility. The 2022 election will be passe ou casse for the battered legacy of De Gaulle, Chirac and Sarkozy. Another failure to reach the second round will hasten the disintegration of Les Républicains. The moderate, pro-European elements will be absorbed into a Greater Macronism. The rest will merge with the far-Right.

This, I believe, is Eric Zemmour’s principal ambition: to do well enough in 2022 to destroy both the LR and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. A new nationalist, anti-migrant, Eurosceptic movement could then emerge before the next Presidential election in 2027.

Barnier could, however, still prevent the destruction of the movement that he has served since the age of 14. He — or whoever becomes the centre-Right candidate — still has a slim chance of being elected President of the Republic. As things stand, far-Right rivals Le Pen and Zemmour are jostling for second position in the first round on 17% to 20%. The top place seems likely to go to President Macron, whose first-round support is stable on 23-27%.

The second place in Round Two on 24 April could be a three-way lottery until the last moment. Le Pen and Zemmour could cancel each other out and reduce the entry score to something in the high teens — reachable by Barnier, or another Gaullist.

If either Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour qualifies for Round Two, Macron will crush them. The Left and Greens, with around 30% of the vote split seven ways in Round One, will not vote for the far-Right in Round Two. Some will abstain. Most will grumble and vote for Macron.

If Barnier, or another centre-Right candidate, sneaks into Round Two, the result could be very close. Many Left and Green voters loathe Macron. They would vote to dump him on 24 April — and then loathe the new centre-Right president the next day.

Could that be President Barnier?  It remains unlikely. But I no longer think that it’s impossible.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

john_lichfield

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

22 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago

I would like some discussion on the effects of the current COVID passports on the outcome of this election. Are there any candidates who oppose it?
Friends in Paris reliably inform me that the protests are ever-present, and have slowly morphed into a more general malaise which encompasses the gilet jaune movement.
The common link, it seems, is a distrust of globalist, top-down policymaking which Macron has come to personify, but to which someone like Barnier is unlikely to emerge as a genuine alternative.
What is Zemmour’s position on Covid-passports, endless masking and other pockmarks of Covid hysteria?

Roger Inkpen
RI
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I’ve just come back from a few days in Paris. True, mask-wearing is required indoors, but it was 100% take up wherever I went. True, you are never far from a gendarme in Paris. There was no sign of resistance – one guy had his mask under his chin and immediately pulled it up when a couple of gendarmes turned up.
I was only asked for my pass sanitaire on the ferry, train, and hotel. Places like museums and tourist attractions require them, but I had no wish to queue up for ages so gave those a miss!
I realise Paris is unrepresentative, but given the high take up of the Covid pass when it became mandatory, it suggests the French are much more compliant than they used to be!

Mark Knight
MK
Mark Knight
2 years ago

I am trying hard to find the part of me that cares ‘two-hoots’ about Barnier, his opinions, or the next French President.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago

You can tell the French political establishment and it’s admirers are in trouble when they start labelling Zemmour as a “xenophobe”. I think Barnier could better be described as a xenophobe for wanting to ban immigration to France – as if that was at all feasible.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

Not sure why it’s xenophobic to be pro French.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

To be honest I’d rather it be Barnier than Macron. I grew to thoroughly despise the hauteur and “the clock is ticking!” refrain during the Brexit negotiations…but haven’t we all sort of developed some kind of grudging respect for the guy? I seriously doubt a Barnier government would throw its dollies out the pram and threaten to turn off the electricity over a couple of fishing licences.

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I believe Barnier showed admirable restraint in the face of the flip-flopping and endless posturing of the British side. At the same time, the future of Anglo-French relations might be better served by having a fresh face south of the Channel.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

The UK position was always very clear. The media and Remainers and the EU kept trying to set an anti Britain narrative. For example… it was the EU who insisted on an all or nothing approach, refusing to talk trade or any ‘easier’ topics until they got their way on fishing, Ireland and payment, none of this is laid out in article 50. They expected us to give way on everything first on the promise of some trade deal that was NEVER going to be worth it due to their obsession with ideology. A sensible approach would have been to set, say, a 5 year timetable for a sector by sector uncoupling or to phase transition out of the EU via EEA/EFTA to try out scenarios. The idea that a run up against the clock/ all or nothing/ forever and ever fudge on NI could ever be a lasting solution when no-one could test it out, is madness. It was very clear to me the EU set out to punish the UK for leaving as well as hamstring us as competition. The UK is a pragmatic nation and simply, I think, underestimated the depths to which the EU would sink. I also understand that far from being treated like ‘any other 3rd country’ the ticking and crossing of paperwork has been made deliberately overzealous in ways it is not with other 3rd countries especially considering the UK’s standards are the same or higher than the EUs. France deliberately closed the border before Brexit day to make it clear ‘what Brexit means’ – if you’re not with us you are against us. Like a woman scorned frankly. They are demanding future proofing of rule changes from us they would never demand of other countries and I think even some Remainers have cottoned on to this. We were NEVER friends. The EU has never been our friend. We have been a useful cash cow nothing more. We’re separated by the Channel and fundamentals of mindset too. We are incompatible. Look at the way they reacted to our vaccine programme, how they treated AstraZeneca! The EU has actually made the Brexiteers case for them.

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Cheryl,
I won’t comment on the hellish wrath of a woman’s scorn, as my own personal experiences with divorce might taint my perspective somewhat.
But the metaphor isn’t terrible. For me, the idea that you can withdraw painlessly from 40 years of economic union with your largest trading partner is as naïve as an unfaithful husband expecting to walk away from his wife of as many years without the lawyers getting involved.
Ireland is the child. And no, you aren’t going to get custody.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

No-one expected smooth sailing but wives who threaten to kill the kids if you dare to leave them is not a sane response.

Dustin Needle
DN
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I didn’t understand that remark either. Many on the Leave side that I spoke to respect EU politicians like Barnier and Verhofstadt for their clarity on the EU vision of a proper Union, like the UK and USA, and well understood that Britain’s half-in/half-out approach was hindering progress. A BBC documentary at the time demonstrated UK going missing from burden-sharing at every key moment in the EU’s various crisis over the past few years.
Makes you wonder what all the fuss was about – we’re going, you can crack on now chaps…still, that’s what working at the Independent for 20 years can do to your worldview. As well as thinking that being like Joe Biden is an electoral asset, and wheeling out the “far-right” tropes.
It will be fascinating though. Can’t really see a serious challenge to Macron if he gets into a final two run-off.

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Not sure who on earth you’ve found who respects Verhofstadt or Barnier. Verhofstadt who proudly described the new Empire at the Illiberal Undemocrats party conference, or Barnier who has shown himself to be the utter hypocrite we suspected him to be. I have no respect for bullies without principle. I do have some grudging respect for Macron on one topic though. Islam. His defence of French culture and laicite was brave, especially as almost no-one stood with him, the cowards

JR Stoker
JS
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Very good article, thank you. Though is not Joe Biden “old and overestimated“?
Apart from Le General, and I suppose Pompidou, all Presidents and most prospective presidents seem to be in it entirely for themselves. No principles, no thought out ideology, just moi, moi, moi.
Maybe the time has come for France to copy the British model; a prime minister in Parliament and the restoration of the monarchy. How the population would love some proper pomp and circumstance.

Patrick Heren
PH
Patrick Heren
2 years ago

As a Brexiteer I did not loathe Barnier, I admired his evident negotiating ability. The problem was on the British side, with Mrs May and her people unwilling really to push for Brexit, thus ending up in the mire we are all trying to forget. Bonne chance, Michel!

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Heren

Yes that is a far more reasonable view. Barnier looked tough, compared to our snivelling appeasing Remainer government.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
2 years ago

From what I have just read I deduce that Michel Barnier has led a cloistered life as a political elite with little or no real knowledge of the average Jean or Jeanne on the street. Could someone please let me know if I am correct in this summation

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Running on a ticket of less interference from EU courts and stopping immigration. Why isn’t he being called a far right, xenophobic hypocrite?

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

Good God !!
where did you get this idea from ??? Michel Barrier has absolutely no chance to be elected, let alone be selected at the Republicans convention. So little chance that he had to relapse his European faith to please the Frenchxiters………after having clubbed the UK for the same reason…..this is very amusing.
Xavier Bertrand who bears hypocrisy on his face will be the contender for the first round where he will be toast and we’ll be in for “ Le Pen Macron” part deux.
Macron will be elected with even less of the total votes of the last election and will call himself “ President de tous les Français” with less than 25 %.
Having said that……Barbier would get my vote but the french are Bonapartits at heart.
How boring.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
Roger Inkpen
RI
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Let’s face it, no one wants to read an article saying: the election will be e re-run of 2017. So journos need something fresh to postulate about, however unlikely it is to happen!

hugh bennett
HB
hugh bennett
2 years ago

Well Bernier has the main qualification for French President – total vanity-
but would there be enough mirrors in the Elysee Palace ?
actually i don`t think the rest of the world will give a damn if another elitist gets 25% of the vote and strutting rights !
“”light me a another Gauloise Juliet”, he said with a shrug, and sipped his glass of Chateau Pape Clement as the moon cast a silver shadow across the Seine as the plebs ran amuck in yellow vests around the Arc de Triomphe…………

Jonathan Weil
JW
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago

I love the fact that party members — and of the centre-right! — are called “militants”. They order things differently in France.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

Strolling along the Rive Gauche the other day I noticed even Jacques Chirac – the master-criminal of Paris – has a Quai named after him. Collaborateur Mitterrand has his own Avenue in Paris. So for posterity’s sake I assume the likes of Sarko and Macron will also get their own immortalisation in the capital!