Let me go out on a limb here and predict that Michel Barnier, who is trying to rekindle his modest and largely forgotten political career on the back of his notoriety as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is not going to be the next president of France.
Barnier is currently famous (but only, I suspect, for 15 minutes) for demanding a three to five year suspension of immigration into France. Bad news for Swedes seeking a retirement chateaux in the Dordogne. But seriously, this is all he’s got? The nightly riots and attacks on police in France, provoking excited talk of civil war, seem to originate with people who are already here. And how does he propose to keep the immigrants out?
It is a minor curiosity of the French presidential election campaign now underway that the candidacy of Barnier seems to be taken more seriously in Britain than France. He’s not registering here in any of the major polls. My neighbours have barely heard of him. He has no ground game or organisation to speak of. The field of candidates is already crowded.
Aged 70, he is the grey man from central casting. Although nominally right of centre, his mostly uninspiring career saw him shoved off to Brussels more than a decade ago. It’s been closer to 15 years since he was any kind of a player in Paris. He’s utterly clueless about how to solve the problems of restlessness. He imagines the constitution might be changed. He’s a slave to process.
Despite the continued interest in him in Britain, I see no stampede for boring Barnier. Voters are already spoiled for choice on the right and have much else on their minds.
France – if not yet in the grip of a civil war, although there are literally hundreds of areas where the police fear to tread – is certainly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And yet none of the apparent candidates have anything interesting to say about this.
President Macron is talking about Europe while the voters talk of security. Young voters are not interested in his dreams for Europe. They want to walk home without being mugged. The Covid vaccination campaign is going better but Macron can’t vaccinate against the breakdown of law and order. His measures against Islamist terror seem ineffective. Christian churches are regularly burned. Even Macron’s capital looks shabby. Areas of Paris, ruled by a red-green alliance, are becoming the squalor pit of Europe. While the Elysée spends €3,000 (£2,500) a week on flowers.
The left is shattered, the right is doing deals with Macron and sometimes Le Pen. Eric Zemmour, the brilliant controversialist of CNews and Le Figaro, a potential candidate, guards his intentions. Édouard Philippe, the Républicain prime minister sacked by Macron, is apparently frightened of challenging his old boss. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the most popular figure on the left, is a clown, a gallic Jeremy Corbyn.
And Marine Le Pen, who might actually beat Macron, is as inadequate as ever. Her staff work is superficial. She remains clueless on the economy. She’s charmless on television. She fails to challenge Macron again and again. Her position on Covid is fog. She’s not a racist or fascist, just completely useless. More useless than Macron? The voters will decide.
So here we go again. A president in EU cloud cuckoo land. Two more cops slaughtered. The right in the hands of the terrible Marine Le Pen, unless Zemmour can take her down. Retired generals and active military are grumbling. A gaggle of secondary candidates who could create chaos in the first round on April 10, 2022, splitting votes in unpredictable ways. And perhaps the second round vote on April 24, pitting Le Pen against Macron once again. Or perhaps not.
Yet from all of this babel of bla-bla-bla, is there any intelligent vision for what France has to do to preserve the indivisible republic? Evidently not. And certainly not from Barnier, the quintessential yesterday’s man.