BREAKING NEWS
This content is not available in your region

Does Michel Barnier want to be France's next president?

Access to the comments Comments
Michel Barnier speaks during a debate on the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement at the European Parliament in Brussels, April 27, 2021.
Michel Barnier speaks during a debate on the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement at the European Parliament in Brussels, April 27, 2021.   -   Copyright  Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP
Text size Aa Aa

For over four years, Brexit watchers clung to his every word. And Michel Barnier came through with an early Christmas present on December 24, 2020, announcing the terms of the European Union's divorce from the UK had been agreed upon.

Yet, what was one of his greatest accomplishments also heralded the end of his EU career.

Barnier celebrated his 70th birthday in early January — a milestone that bars him from ever working for the European Commission again.

But the timing, perhaps, couldn't have been better and Brexit — which he has deplored as a "lose-lose" situation — could well have provided him with the springboard to win the French presidency.

At least, that's what he appears to be thinking.

'I have missed France'

France will go to the polls in April 2022 to elect its next president and the campaign has already started.

Only two candidates have so far officially thrown their hats into the ring: Marine Le Pen for the far-right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon for the far-left. Incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to run.

In the mainstream right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party, from which Barnier hails, several figures have indicated they would likely put their names forward.

Barnier has also put feelers out. The ink on the Brexit deal had barely dried when he set tongues wagging in his home country telling French television: "I have missed France for four and half years. I will now devote all my energy to my country."

He has since launched a working group of LR lawmakers, "Patriot and European" to brainstorm political issues and released a book on May 6 on the four-year Brexit saga (to be released in English in October).

And when asked on the radio earlier this week whether he intends to run, he replied: "What I can tell you is that I will be an actor in this presidential debate."

In political language, that means: "I'm seriously considering it."

"I think that at moment in my political family, Les Republicains, there is a need to work together, to listen to each other, to respect each other. I want to participate in a collective game," he added.

He also reiterated that "even though I was in Brussels for a few years, I remained passionately attached to this country" — political speak for: you can take the man out of France but you can't take France out of the man.

'A trajectory on the margins'

Barnier's 1.9-metre stature is certainly towering in his native country but his political legacy is not. This, despite an impressively long resumé.

Barnier was born in the eastern alpine region of Savoie in 1951 in a modest, though comfortable family. His father was a leather craftsman.

He started his political activism at 14, joining the movement of Charles de Gaulle and quickly found a job as a ministerial advisor upon graduating from the prestigious Ecole de Commerce Supérieur de Paris — a business school — in 1972.

He advised ministers for several years, before deciding to get his hands dirty for real. In 1978, he was elected to the National Assembly to be the youngest MP there.

Fifteen years later, after some time spent in Savoie to help organise the 1992 Winter Olympics, he returned to work for the government, this time as a fully-fledged minister. He spent two years on the environment portfolio and another two years as the minister for European affairs.

"He was part of the new political forces of the centrist and liberal right at the time which was really starting to impose itself," Willy Beauvallet, a professor of Political Sciences at the Université Lumiére Lyon 2, told Euronews.

"But his trajectory remained on the margins though," he added, as the environment and Europe are "part of the topics that are on the rise then" but far from the most visible.

Brussels calling

Europe however was changing rapidly. The Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU and paved the way for closer economic integration, the creation of the euro and free movement, came into force in 1993. Negotiations for the Treaty of Amsterdam, which transferred certain powers from national governments to Brussels, started in 1995 and were concluded two years later.

All this makes Barnier visible on European issues and "from that moment on, he is one of the actors that count in Europe; in any case, those who emerged, imposed themselves and were recognised on European issues," Beauvallet said.

Then in 1997, France is ruled by a coalition with a right-wing head of state but a left-leaning cabinet and Barnier turns to the polls again, securing himself a post as a senator.

In 1999, he is named as the EU's commissioner for regional policy.

Barnier, then, was still "a young espoir (hope) of the French republican centrist liberal right but still playing second fiddle and for him Europe is undoubtedly an opportunity for political ascendancy", Beauvallet noted.

This allowed him to once more be at the heart of shaping the European project with member states fighting at the time over how the bloc should allocate cohesion funds to regions.

The experience boosted his profile at home. In 2004, he is put at the helm of France's foreign ministry and in 2007 he is named agriculture and fishing minister— two key posts in the French cabinet.

Then in 2009, he returned to Brussels, first as an MEP and then Commissioner for Internal Market and Services — one of the most high profile jobs in the EU executive.

2014 brought deception as he failed to secure the Commission presidency with European leaders favouring Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker but it will be short-lived.

Two years later, he is tasked with leading the contentious negotiations with the UK, a role that will provide him with four years of visibility and plenty of praise.

"He's really built himself a career at the junction of the French political field and the European political field," Beauvallet said. "And so we can certainly see why after having been French minister, EU commissioner, minister and commissioner again and chief Brexit negotiator, he may now be aspiring to or wondering about a presidential candidacy."

'Bland, dry, dull and boring'

A presidential bid at 70 in France is far from unique although those who have done it in the past, Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac, were both vying for a second term, which they secured.

Barnier, if he does try his luck, could therefore become the oldest person to enter the French presidency. The task will not be easy.

"What struck me were the numerous parallels with (US President) Joe Biden," Douglas Webber, emeritus professor of political science at the INSEAD business school, told Euronews.

"Both are quite elderly," he went on, and both have had "reputations for being sort of bland and dry and dull and boring". The two men also share an "immense experience and knowledge of foreign affairs".

The similarities, however, appear to end there.

"It was quite clear what Biden had to do to have a shot at the presidency and in the primary. And in Barnier's case, the process by which the right-wing chooses its candidate is so uncertain that he can't very well assess right now what he must do," Webber explained.

During the last presidential campaign, LR organised a primary process through which the favourite was bypassed in favour of another candidate, Francois Fillon, who was later felled by a financial misconduct scandal. The current party chairman has indicated he'd rather not repeat the experience.

The leadership could also decide to nominate a candidate if one of the hopefuls emerges over the next few months as a clear favourite within the French electorate. A third way would be for the candidate to be chosen at a party congress by a select group of activists.

"Is Barnier the guy most likely to win such a vote? I suspect not," Webber said. "But there is a scenario in which he might emerge and that would be if the other candidates basically sort of cancel each other out."

'Europe is a turn-off'

Barnier's problems to win his party's nomination are three-fold.

The first one is that his visibility over the past four years was limited to people who actually followed Brexit. A large part of the French electorate did not.

"Most people in opinion surveys asked 'What do you think of Michel Barnier?' simply don't know who he is and can't locate him on any kind of spectrum," Webber said.

The second is, well, Europe. Much of his career was built in Brussels so his political anchoring in France is weak with no clear support base.

Additionally, while his European experience can allow him to pitch himself as "one who is above the fray, who is moderate, reasoned, who knows how to compromise but who can also hold a clear political line," Beauvallet said, it also leaves him open to accusations that he "was too far away, is too technocratic, too technical, who can't speak to people."

"Europe is also a turn-off for a part of the electorate, on the right in particular," he noted.

The third one is that his centrist, liberal politics are very close to several politicians with much higher profiles nationally including Macron himself and LR's Valérie Pecresse. His position on other key issues are unknown but Xavier Bertrand, a former LR party member and presidential hopeful, has a strong background on social issues and security, Webber stressed.

'They're in complete chaos'

"Paradoxically, I think he wouldn't be a very good first-round candidate but he could be a very good second-round candidate," Webber said.

Polls currently predict that Macron and Le Pen will meet in the second round again and that the contest will end with a Macron victory. But they also show that the gap between them will be much narrower than in 2017 due in part to left-wing disillusionment with Macron.

An Ifop poll also showed that should Macron fall at the first hurdle, the right-wing candidate would win against Le Pen with a wider margin than Macron would.

"Barnier has a much more technocratic, centrist, moderate image. He is the kind of guy who would get the left-wing vote in the second round against Marine Le Pen better than any other people on the French right," Webber said.

Of course, as the former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics and nothing yet is cut and dry. Favourites to win a year ahead of the French presidential election rarely cross the doorstep of the Elysée Palace.

"The French right used to be known as "la plus bête du monde" (the dumbest in the world), and this is the kind of phrase that comes to mind pretty often if you look at the situation of the party right now. They're in complete chaos," Webber stressed.

"I have no idea what kind of events could take place between now and April next year but they always can and the cards get to be reshuffled. Someone like Barnier could then emerge quite quickly as a plausible candidate," he concluded.