August 27, 2021 - 3:00pm

Michel Barnier has an enormously high political profile. He is much admired by half the country for his work as the EU’s Brexit negotiator.  

Unfortunately for him, the country where he is widely known and admired (but also detested) is not France. It is Britain.

Yesterday, as long expected, Barnier declared that he was a candidate in the French presidential elections next April. Properly speaking, he announced that he would be a candidate in a possible centre-Right primary which may happen in October or November but has not yet been agreed or organised.

His chances of winning such a primary — and fighting in the elections proper — are nil. Barnier, a decent, competent man but largely unknown in France, would have more chance of making electoral headway in the UK.

His status as the chief Brexit negotiator for Brussels for four years made him one of the best-known and most-discussed figures in British politics. But on the other side of the Channel, he has had no role in domestic French politics since the end of Sarkozy presidency nine years ago. He has never had any particular following in France; he is 70 years old.

On the website of the main centre-Right newspaper, Le Figaro this morning, Barnier has a long interview. It is given less prominence than a story reporting that another centre-Right baron — Laurent Wauquiez, president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, will not run in a centre-Right primary (if it happens).

Why is Barnier doing it?  The same question might be asked of many of the 20 or so other declared, or likely, candidates for next year’s French presidential elections. The Elysée Palace casts a hypnotic spell over French politicians. The two-round electoral system allows marginal candidates to dream and no-hopers to have a few weeks of fame.  

So if not Barnier, who will emerge as the centre-Right challenger to President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen for the two places in the second round of the elections next April? The favourite to win the primary is now Valérie Pécresse, 54, the president of the Ile-de-France (greater Paris) region. At least four other candidates, including Barnier, have declared themselves or seem likely to do so.

There is a huge complication, however. The centre-Right president of the northern French region, Hauts-de-France, Xavier Bertrand, 56, is already running for President of the Republic. He says he will ignore any centre-Right primary.

Two rival centre-right candidates in the first round next April would almost guarantee that the centrist Macron and the far right Le Pen reached the 2nd round again. Recent polls suggest that Macron would them win by a ten point margin. 

Much could yet change but centre-right electoral antics so far could have been scripted by the man already in the Elysée.

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.