PARIS — The EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator is making a long shot bid for the French presidency, betting that gravitas and experience in government will win him the top job 2022.
The polls — at least for now — beg to differ.
“In these grave times, I have the determination to stand … and be the president of a France that is reconciled, to respect the French people and see that France is respected,” Michel Barnier told TF1’s evening news show on Thursday evening.
Barnier is not yet officially a candidate as his party Les Républicains has to decide whether it will hold a primary this fall.
The conservative party has a number of candidates to choose from, some of whom have long since launched their campaigns.
Whoever emerges from the pack will go up against the two dominant figures of the 2022 race so far: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. But the conservative party, which hasn’t recovered from its crushing defeat to Macron in 2017, still hasn’t agreed how it will select a candidate.
The contest has so far been lackluster. The head of the Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand, is highest in the polls but has refused to take part in a party primary. Valérie Pécresse, head of the Paris region, is neck-and-neck with Bertrand.
While his party was stuck in the doldrums, Barnier was busy crossing swords with the British. The cruel irony for Barnier is while he is a familiar (and not always popular) face for Brits, the French have not been following his travails as closely, put off by the complexity of the talks and the lack of an obvious impact on their lives. His homecoming has been far from ecstatic.
‘You need gravitas to run the country’
The announcement of his candidacy was expected as Barnier had long planned a return to French politics, confiding in private before the summer that he could see himself as “a team leader.”
According to an aide, Barnier’s decision to run centered on the fact that he believes his experience of government puts him ahead of rivals. Barnier has served four times as a cabinet minister and twice as an EU commissioner before becoming the head of the Brexit task force in 2016
“His experience is simply off the charts. He knows local politics in his native Savoie region, national politics, the corridors of power in Brussels,” said the aide. “It sets him apart from all the others. And you need gravitas to run the country.”
But the main hurdle he will have to overcome is his perceived lack of charisma and a lack of visibility at home.
A Pécresse supporter told Playbook Paris this week: “It’s not in her interest to run in a primary against … a guy whose main achievement is organizing the Olympic Games in Albertville,” referencing Barnier’s work on France’s winter games in 1992.
But Barnier’s team hope that a primary would be the opportunity to redress that.
“He has always been a doer, not a comms man, that’s why he’s not as well-known as the others,” the same aide said. “But most people don’t have a negative impression of him. They recognize that he has done a lot of work for the country.”
And he does have supporters. Former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said he welcomed Barnier’s bid, without saying if he would vote for him. “Macron’s mandate was supposed to bring novelty, instead it has brought amateurism,” Hortefeux told POLITICO. “Michel Barnier instead is reliable, methodical, his experience and international recognition is an asset.”
According to Barnier’s team, several study groups — including CEOs, farmers and business leaders — are helping with his campaign manifesto. He plans to put forward proposals on five big policy areas in the coming weeks.
Barnier’s most shocking proposal so far is a 3-5 year moratorium on immigration, putting on hold all residency permit requests except for those from asylum seekers and students. In an interview with Le Figaro Thursday, Barnier also suggested organizing a referendum on immigration if he is elected president, striking a more right-wing note than Elysée incumbent Macron.
But difficulties lie ahead.
Polls suggest that none of the conservative candidates would make it past the first round of the presidential election, with Macron winning against Le Pen in a run-off vote. A recent poll by Ipsos estimated that 15 percent of the French would vote for Bertrand, 14 percent for Pécresse and only 11 percent for Barnier in the first round.
The Les Républicains party is set to decide on whether it will hold a primary contest during its party conference next month — and try to persuade Bertrand to take part. The other option is simply for the top brass to pick a candidate without consulting party members.
Whoever they pick will have a mountain to climb.