Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator for four years and a former French minister, has become the latest centre-right politician to publicly throw his hat into the ring for next year’s presidential election with a promise to reconcile what he called a divided nation.
“My country is not doing well,” he said on Friday. “It is too divided and fractured – between urban and rural areas, between immigrants and non-immigrants, between the young and the less young. There’s lots of tension and lots of violence between people, whether it’s in sports stadiums or on the internet.”
Although Mr Barnier was praised in France and throughout the EU for his patient and painstaking negotiations with the British over the terms of the UK’s departure following the 2016 Brexit referendum, he is only one of several candidates from the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) party – and far from the most popular – to be aiming to replace Emmanuel Macron as president in the April elections.
Mr Macron, elected in 2017 as an insurgent liberal candidate who campaigned as “neither right nor left”, and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen are the most likely two candidates to make it to the second and final round of voting as they did four years ago, according to opinion polls.
For the traditional centre right, the leading candidates are Xavier Bertrand, leader of the northern Hauts-de-France region, and Valérie Pécresse, who heads the Ile-de-France region around Paris. The others so far declared are Barnier, Eric Ciotti from Nice, and Philippe Juvin, a former member of the European Parliament. Laurent Wauquiez, who heads the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region around Lyon, decided on Thursday not to stand.
While a large majority of French lean to the right or even the far right, the LR party will struggle to capitalise on that in the presidential race because it faces divisions in its own ranks and has lost many of its voters to Mr Macron. Pollsters say the centre-right movement has little chance of success in the bid for the presidency if it fields more than one candidate.
Vow to ‘play by the rules’
Mr Bertrand, the most popular centre-right candidate at the moment, has officially stepped down from the LR and has refused to submit himself to a party primary due next month. He began his campaign early to pre-empt his rivals. He has sought to present himself as the best person to oust Mr Macron as well as defeat Ms Le Pen after beating her party in northern France in local elections in June.
Mr Barnier said he would “play by the rules” and take part in an LR primary. The 70-year-old veteran politician has sought to differentiate himself from Mr Macron by promising to decentralise French governance, talking of “reconciliation” and playing on the 43-year-old president’s reputation for arrogance.
“This country is run in a solitary manner,” said Mr Barnier. “It needs to be run more collectively.”
As well as negotiating Brexit, Mr Barnier has been a member of the French and European parliaments and several times a minister and says he has experience at local, national and European levels.
Like other candidates on the right, he has vowed to crack down on immigration. And his most controversial proposal is for an immigration moratorium of three to five years, a plan that would help to limit the appeal to voters of Le Pen and her anti-immigration Rassemblement National party. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021