French presidential candidate Michel Barnier has raised eyebrows by promising to reclaim France’s sovereignty from European courts and hold a referendum on immigration.
As the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Mr Barnier was a vocal defender of the free movement of people and integrity of the EU.
But speaking at a French Republican party event on Thursday, he said France’s migration policy should not be constrained by the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU entity.
He described his policy as a “constitutional shield” and promised to put his proposals to a referendum within months if he becomes president.
“On immigration, we have to recover our judicial sovereignty so that we are no longer subjected to the judgments” of the European courts, he said.
He also called for greater French influence in Europe. “We have to rebalance it against the dominant German influence,” he said.
Mr Barnier previously caused a stir by calling for non-EU migration to be suspended for up to five years, citing the risk of terrorism.
In Britain, supporters of Brexit saw him as echoing the arguments they had made in favour of leaving the EU.
“The same Michel Barnier who during the Brexit negotiations tried to belittle the UK for demanding control over our courts and our borders. Now he wants the same for France,” said Conservative MP Michael Fabricant.
He remarked that Mr Barnier’s comments hinted at a possible “Frexit” – a French withdrawal from the EU. Mr Barnier has not called for this.
David Jones, another Tory MP, joked that Mr Barnier might have “learned something from his dealings with David Frost”, his British counterpart.
“It seems Mr Barnier has woken up to the loss of national sovereignty inherent in the EU structures,” he said.
Mr Barnier later sought to clarify his remarks. “Let’s stay calm,” he said. “To avoid any pointless controversy, and as I have always said, my proposal for a constitutional shield will only apply to migration policy.”
Under the deal made with Mr Barnier, Britain ended free movement from the EU and largely left the orbit of the European Court of Justice. It is still in the human rights court.
Mr Barnier entered the presidential race last month, ending months of speculation. The election is in April.
The centre-right Republicans have no clear front-runner to challenge President Emmanuel Macron, who shook up French politics by surging to victory in 2017.
The party is promising to cap immigration as part of a 30-point manifesto that it unveiled at a rally last weekend.
Mr Barnier, 70, has held several ministerial posts in France but has a lower public profile than some rivals.
These include Xavier Bertrand and Valerie Pecresse, two regional leaders who boosted their hopes with election victories in June.
Polls suggest the most likely outcome is a second-round run-off between Mr Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Mr Macron has not formally announced he will seek a second term, but is widely expected to do so.