Susanne Mundschenk

Don’t underestimate Barnier

The former Brexit negotiator may yet topple Macron

Don't underestimate Barnier
Michel Barnier at a farmers' meeting while on the campaign trail earlier this month (Getty)
Text settings

No one really expects Michel Barnier to be chosen as the Républicains's candidate for the French presidency. Success in Brussels does not make it easier to win at home. The most famous example of this rule is Martin Schulz, who returned from a long career in Brussels to become German SPD leader and chancellor candidate in 2017. He was seen as a political curiosity partly because he was unknown. But he couldn't keep up the momentum after German voters saw him on the domestic stage. Brussels insiders become detached from what's going on at home. It is much easier to go to Brussels than it is to come back.

But don't write Barnier off just yet. He remained more connected to French politics than Schulz was to Germany. There are also a couple of factors that play to Barnier’s advantage.

First, the shifting landscape on the right. He is the candidate most highly rated by those conservatives who do not wish to be absorbed by Emmanuel Macron’s camp. Edouard Philippe founded his own party, which could take over some of those Macron-compatible conservatives. What remains is an electorate that sits much more to the right than before.

On immigration, Barnier called for a three to five-year moratorium on residency permits for non-EU immigrants and a referendum on migration. Such a moratorium would be against EU law. Barnier knows that. To get around this, France would have to claim sovereignty back on immigration, circumventing the Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

This is easier said than done — but he will get some brownie points among right-leaning voters nevertheless. It's not hard to see why Barnier is appealing to a deeply conservative electorate. He and Eric Zemmour are the only ones who dare talk about immigration, just as Marine Le Pen has gone soft.

Barnier is audacious on EU matters. This week he came out forcefully against the Polish ruling to renege on EU law over the independence of judges. He told CNN that at some point in the coming weeks the EU will have to confront Poland and ask: 'do you want to be part of the EU or not?' If it does, they must follow the rules they agreed to.

Then there are Franco-British relations, currently at a historic low after Brexit negotiations and pandemic politics, a row over fishing rights, and the nuclear submarine deal that saw the US ditch France for Britain. Depending on how these spats flare up on the campaign trail, Barnier would have an indisputable advantage. He was the EU's skilled Brexit negotiator and many of the misgivings in London were the result of clever negotiation tactics played by Barnier's team.

The French have their misgivings towards the British too. The British prepared the Indo-Pacific military cooperation deal with the US and Australia in secret. This is a region where France has territory and military interests. Then there is the outrage over fishing rights. The French were furious after London rejected Paris's requests for fishing licenses around the Channel Islands. Retaliatory measures, such as cutting off energy supplies to Jersey and even the mainland, were mentioned in the press. Can Barnier bring back a sense of dignity? He certainly has the most international experience of all three candidates, someone people could trust to defend French interests if this is what is needed. In this domain, he would be more than a match for Macron.

This doesn't mean Barnier will necessarily get there. He has little to say about social grievances. Another gilets jaunes movement would steer the national debate away from the international scene where he would be most comfortable. As is so often the case, it is not only the quality of the candidate but the fate that meets him that will determine the outcome of this contest.

This article was first published in the EuroIntelligence morning briefing. For a trial subscription click here.