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 ValĂ©rie PĂ©cresse, 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 RĂ©publicains. 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.