by John Lichfield
Friday, 27
August 2021
Explainer
15:00

Michel Barnier is very popular… in Britain, not France

The chances of him being elected President of the Republic are nil
by John Lichfield
President Barnier? Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty

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.

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Pete Marsh
Pete Marsh
8 months ago

I’ve assumed that the main role of Barnier, with all his though on immigration talk, is to syphon votes away from Le Pen to the benefit of Macron.

Nile Kingston
Nile Kingston
8 months ago
Reply to  Pete Marsh

I would tend to agree with you on this as Le Pen is still a real threat. Mind you things do change before the final vote is cast.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
8 months ago

The ways of the French are strange.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
8 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Too Germanic.

French goings-on are très bizarre, I must say, …. sounds better.

I’ve watched ‘Allo ‘Allo, you know. Too many times.

Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
8 months ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Aren’t the British ones not as strange, seen from the other side of the Channel ?

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
8 months ago
Reply to  Jacques Rossat

I was being a little tongue in cheek, Jacques. No offence was meant.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago

It’s still surprising, at least to me, that Barnier even bothers to run. His lead role in the Brexit negotiations suggests he’s very much a realist and pragmatist. I would have thought he could assess his own electoral chances with a keen and cynical gaze.
On the other hand, as the author notes, he’s seventy. His career is behind him. Perhaps he feels his life is almost over. So he doesn’t have much to lose by running in the first round of elections. It might, as Billy Bunter would say, be a jolly wheeze.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

We’ve got Billy Bunter as our Prime Minister

Matt B
Matt B
8 months ago

No. He’s really not.