President Michel Barnier? EU's Brexit chief jockeys for position in France

Brexit negotiator could challenge Emmanuel Macron in 2022

Head of the Task Force for Relations with the UK, Michel Barnier gestures during the debate on EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement during the second day of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, on April 27, 2021. / AFP / JOHN THYS
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A familiar face in Britain during the struggle over Brexit, the EU’s former chief negotiator Michel Barnier is now jockeying for position in his native France as speculation grows that he will seek the presidency in 2022.

Mr Barnier, 70, made headlines this week by calling for immigration from outside the EU to be suspended for up to five years.

A rash of media appearances by Mr Barnier comes after his release of a book about the Brexit saga, The Great Illusion, and his launch of a political faction in February called "Patriotic and European".

But his efforts to grab the limelight hint at a potential problem for Mr Barnier, a longstanding EU operative who was last active in French politics as an agriculture minister more than a decade ago.

“I think he would have a very big problem with his profile,” said Dr Paul Smith, a French politics expert at the University of Nottingham. “His problem is he doesn’t really have one.”

Mr Barnier hails from the centre-right Republicans, one of the traditional major parties that were crushed by Emmanuel Macron’s landslide victory in 2017.

The party has no obvious standard-bearer for next year’s election, at which Mr Macron is widely expected to seek a second term.

Mr Barnier has yet to announce whether he will seek the presidency, instead making veiled comments that he sees his future in French domestic politics.

"He has made various comments that suggest he wants to be seen as a potential candidate," Dr Smith told The National.

Mr Barnier denies he is an out-of-touch bureaucrat. He insisted in one interview that he had spent "much more time on the ground than in Brussels".

In a criticism of Mr Macron's leadership style, he said the president’s approach to power was "too solitary" and bordered on "arrogance".

Nonetheless, Mr Barnier’s potential pitch as a pro-European, centre-right figure may leave him treading a similar path to Mr Macron.

His comments on immigration mirror Mr Macron’s shift to the right as the president prepares for a rematch with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, whispers to European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier as he visits the International Agriculture Fair, in Paris, France. He's known throughout most of Europe as Mr. Brexit, but not so well known at home in France. With a new book out this week, and interviews in national media, Michel Barnier is trying to raise his profile ahead of next April's presidential election. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool, File)
Michel Barnier, left, could challenge Emmanuel Macron, right, for the presidency. AP 

Mood shifts right as Macron gets tough 

Mr Barnier invoked the threat of terrorism in his calls for an immigration stop lasting between three and five years.

Mr Macron's government was shaken last month by an open letter from 20 retired generals warning of a military takeover in response to what they saw as the threat of Islamism.

An anti-terrorism bill currently making its way through parliament is generating controversy because of an amendment calling for under-18s to be banned from wearing the hijab.

The French right is a party in search of a candidate, in search of a programme

“The current mood in France is one where even people like Macron are talking about controlling immigration,” said Dr Smith.

“In 2017 Macron talked about making it easier to integrate. The balance has shifted – Le Pen has been very skilful in shifting the goalposts.”

At the same time, there is a growing environmentalist movement in French politics which Mr Barnier could seek to benefit from, Dr Smith said.

France’s greens saw a surge in support at European Parliament elections in 2019 and made further gains at local elections last year.

Mr Barnier was France’s environment minister from 1993 to 1995, one of several ministerial posts he has held during a long career.

“He’s not what you’d call a green, but he does have centre-right environmental credentials,” said Dr Smith.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen were the top two candidates in 2017 and could face a rematch. AP
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen were the top two candidates in 2017 and could face a rematch. AP

Runners and riders for Macron's job  

The field of candidates for the 2022 election has yet to fully take shape.

One heavyweight contender on the right, regional premier and former French health minister Xavier Bertrand, entered the race in March.

Valerie Pecresse, the president of the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, is another possible contender.

So is Mr Macron's former prime minister, Edouard Philippe, who said in April that "I want no-one to doubt neither my loyalty, my liberty nor my desire to serve the country".

On the left, mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is seen as a potential candidate from the Socialist Party.

She won re-election last year with the promise to tackle pollution by building new bus and cycle lanes and reclaiming many roads for pedestrians.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won nearly 20 per cent of the vote in 2017's first round, declared his candidacy for the Elysee Palace months ago.

Ms Le Pen, from the National Rally, formally entered the race last month.

It is not yet clear how Mr Barnier's Republicans will choose their nominee for 2022.

Before the 2017 election, they held a two-round primary which ended in a surprise victory for former prime minister Francois Fillon.

Another upset followed as Mr Fillon was badly damaged by corruption allegations and Mr Macron steered his new centrist party to victory.

Such surprises show that anything is possible, said Dr Smith, but Mr Barnier’s campaign is still seen as a long shot.

One opinion poll published last month showed him trailing far behind Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen in a hypothetical first round next April.

Still, rivals such as Mr Bertrand and Ms Pecresse face regional elections in June, where bruising losses to the National Rally could weaken their chances.

“If that were to happen, then suddenly the French right would be looking incredibly threadbare,” said Dr Smith, and that could open the door for Mr Barnier.

“The French right is a party in search of a candidate, in search of a programme. He thinks there’s a space there in the electorate that will work for him.”