Michel Barnier in French election spotlight as lurch to right pays off

In a restaurant in prosperous western Paris, fans of the EU’s former negotiator on Brexit, Michel Barnier, crowded in to hear their hero speak, cheering the mild-mannered 70-year-old who has gone from rank outsider to potential favourite in the contest to choose a presidential candidate for the right’s Les Républicains.

Barnier is one of the big surprises of the unpredictable pre-election season in France. He was known for almost 50 years in right-wing French politics as a centrist, liberal-minded neo-Gaullist, devoted to the European cause. But he has amazed observers by significantly hardening his stance as the rightwing party prepared to decide on its candidate early next month.

“There are two conditions for things to get better in France: security and immigration,” Barnier said gravely, to applause. “There is tension, a risk of confrontation – we have to restore calm and bring back quiet 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 agreement was signed with the UK, when he declared that he missed France and wanted to be “useful” in French politics, that he began pondering running for French president to beat Emmanuel Macron and, he says, reunite France’s divided society.

Barnier claims that unregulated immigration from outside the EU is weakening France’s sense of identity. He believes the UK’s vote to leave the EU showed how dangerous it can be when divisions in society are allowed to fester. He has promised a French moratorium of three to five years for non-European immigrants, in which even family members joining immigrants will be stopped, and has called for France to regain legal sovereignty from 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 fairer”.

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His detractors say it is not clear how France, a member of the EU’s Schengen free movement area, could implement this without violating EU law. The left say he’s chasing the far-right Marine Le Pen and another potential candidate, the far-right TV pundit Eric Zemmour. Barnier has dismissed these criticisms as “pathetic” and says he simply wants to improve the way things work.

The quest to choose a presidential candidate for Nicolas Sarkozy’s traditional right-wing party Les Républicains has certainly been defined by tough language on immigration and identity.

Not just Barnier, but his other key competitors – the former Sarkozy ministers, Valerie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand – have all veered from their centrist pasts to appeal to more conservative strains of the party membership. Almost 150,000 party members will decide the candidate in an internal vote, with the winner announced on 4 December. The result is impossible to predict, with 69,000 people joining or rejoining the party since September and no profile of how they might vote.

But ultimately it is a personality contest, and this is where Barnier has created momentum and surprise. Initially dismissed by some as too bland, he has whipped up a following who believe he is a dependable elder-statesman able to end party in-fighting and understand provincial France. A mountaineer and hiker from the Alps, who built his career in local village politics, he walks in ancient forests and reminds people he loves trees. “You can’t be in politics or become president without loving trees,” he recently told Paris Match. First elected aged 22 as a local councillor in Savoie, he then entered parliament aged only 27 in 1978. He served four times as a government minister and twice as EU commissioner. His supporters point out that he has won every direct vote he has stood for since the age of 22.

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“I’ve never been a technocrat, I’ve always been a politician,” Barnier said in Paris. A former environment minister, and co-organiser of the 1992 Winter Olympics, he knows climate change is a concern for right-wing rural voters, and makes it personal. “I come from a mountain area where one-third of the economy depends on snow,” he told the restaurant crowd to applause. Famous for his devotion to spread-sheets and dossiers, he is still often seen with a trademark briefing folder wedged under his arm. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Antoinette, 74, a retired parliamentary attache in Paris, said: “When we were in our 20s and in parliament, I’d see him at lunch – it was usually sausages – and he just stood out as friendly and decent.”

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