IAt a restaurant in the prosperous west of Paris, fans of former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier crowded together to hear their hero speak, cheering on the mild-mannered 70-year-old who has turned from an outsider. to a potential favorite in the contest. elect a presidential candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains.
Barnier is one of the big surprises of the unpredictable pre-election season in France. He was known for nearly 50 years in right-wing French politics as a centrist, liberal-minded Neo-Gaullist dedicated to the European cause. But it has surprised observers by significantly hardening its stance as the right-wing party prepared to decide on its candidate early next month.
“There are two conditions for things to improve in France: security and immigration,” Barnier said gravely, amid applause. “There is tension, risk of confrontation, we have to restore calm and restore tranquility to people’s lives. For that, we need an electroshock in terms of security and immigration ”.
He says it was last Christmas Eve, hours after the post-Brexit deal with the UK was signed, when he declared that he missed France and wanted to be “useful” in French politics that he began to think about running for French president to win. to Emmanuel Macron. and reunify the divided society of France.
Barnier claims that unregulated immigration from outside the EU is weakening France’s sense of identity. He believes that the UK’s vote to leave the EU demonstrated how dangerous it can be when divisions in society are allowed to widen. He promised a French moratorium of three to five years for non-European immigrants, in which even family members who join immigrants will be detained, and has called for France to regain legal sovereignty from the European Union courts. During this immigration moratorium, he said: “we will take measures to review all the procedures that are not working to make them more rigorous and fair.”
His detractors say it is unclear how France, a member of the EU’s Schengen free movement area, could implement this without violating EU law. The left says it is going after far-right Marine Le Pen and another potential candidate, far-right television pundit Eric Zemmour. Barnier has dismissed these criticisms as “pathetic” and says he simply wants to improve the way things work.
The quest to elect a presidential candidate for Nicolas Sarkozy’s traditional right-wing party, Les Républicains, has certainly been defined by harsh language on immigration and identity.
Not only Barnier, but also his other key competitors, former Sarkozy ministers Valerie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, have deviated from their centrist pasts to appeal to the more conservative tensions of party members. Nearly 150,000 party members will decide the candidate in an internal vote, and the winner will be announced on December 4. The outcome is impossible to predict, with 69,000 people joining or rejoining the party since September and there is no profile on how they could vote.
But ultimately, it’s a personality contest, and this is where Barnier has created momentum and surprise. Initially dismissed by some for being too bland, he has gained a following who believe he is a trustworthy elderly statesman capable of ending party infighting and understanding provincial France. A mountaineer and hiker in the Alps, who built his career on local village politics, he walks through ancient forests and reminds people that he loves trees. “You can’t be in politics or become president without loving trees,” he recently told Paris Match. First elected at age 22 as a local councilor in Savoy, he then entered parliament at just 27 years old in 1978. He served four times as a government minister and twice as a European commissioner. His supporters say he has won every direct vote he has run for since he was 22.
“I have never been a technocrat, I have always been a politician,” Barnier said in Paris. Former Environment Minister and co-organizer of the 1992 Winter Olympics, he knows climate change is a concern for right-wing rural voters and he makes it personal. “I come from a mountainous area where a third of the economy depends on snow,” he told the restaurant crowd to applause. Famous for his devotion to spreadsheets and files, he is still often seen with a trademarked information folder under his arm.
Antoinette, 74, a retired parliamentary attaché in Paris, said: “When we were 20 years old and we were in parliament, I would see him at lunch, it was usually hot dogs, and he stood out as kind and decent.”
Francis Szpiner, the mayor of Les Républicains de los 16th Paris district, borrowed a campaign tag from former Socialist President François Mitterrand, to call Barnier “the silent force.”
Barnier’s main rivals, Bertrand and Pécresse, are ahead of him in general electorate polls. But both left the Les Républicains party after Macron’s victory in 2017 to work on their own individual political projects. Barnier stayed, something party members take note of. “In politics, loyalty is a virtue,” Szpiner said.
At Barnier’s modern, open-plan campaign headquarters near the Elysee Palace, a senior member of his team said: “The next two weeks are for Michel Barnier to go out and meet party members and show them how he can beat Emmanuel Macron next spring – because of his position and the fact that he would rule differently. “
Barnier promises to serve only one term as president. He says he would contrast what he sees as Macron’s “lonely” top-down form of decision-making, working instead with different parts of society and local government.
Olivier Rouquan, from the Center for Administrative and Political Sciences at the University of Paris, said of the party’s membership: “This is a larger electorate, they know Barnier and he is like them in many ways. It has moved away from its European stage in Brussels, because a part of this electorate is very focused on security and immigration issues. That is why it has taken that turn. All the candidates have done the same. Barnier didn’t want to be accused of being too moderate. But he has taken a 180-degree turn by proposing to revise the constitution on immigration. It will work? We do not know “.
Colette, 75, a former hospital scientist and longtime party member, said: “Frankly, I find it stable and reassuring, and these days that’s what counts.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism