Illustration by Mia Clement
Michel Barnier. Having taken on the mantle of chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, the French politician has sought a new challenge: the presidency of the French Republic. After months and months of speculation, Barnier finally threw his hat into the ring towards the tail end of August. In an interview with Le Figaro, he declared that “the world around us is dangerous, unstable and fragile. Our country is doing badly and we need a change-over.” In a separate interview with TF1, he said that “in these grave times, I have taken the decision and have the determination to stand… and be the president of a France that is reconciled, to respect the French people and have France respected.”
The French Political Scene
It’s relatively safe to say that the French political scene is going through somewhat of a rough time. The ‘traditional’ left and right have been left wanting, with the battle for the presidency (until now, at least) being squarely between incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his centrist La Republique en Marche! (LREM) party and populist Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Rally (RN). As things stand currently, POLITICO’s Poll of Polls – which, as the name suggests, aggregates polling – puts Macron at 24% and Le Pen at 23%. Xavier Bertrand – the current president of the regional council of Hauts-de-France- is some way away at just 16%.
That being said, even that battle is not as simple as it first appears. In regional elections that took place in June, neither LREM nor RN made any real headway. In fact, in Hauts-de-France – a region targeted heavily by the RN – the mainstream right, in the form of Bertrand and Les Républicains (LR), declared a “crushing victory” over the far-right.
To make matters worse, the last few years and months of French politics have seen a significant mobilisation of society against Macron. Both the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests and, more recently, the protests against the passe sanitaire – France’s version of a vaccine passport – have damaged Macron.
Seen together, Macron’s lack of popularity and Le Pen’s lack of results have complicated the political scene: the candidates that have the greatest support (according to the polls) are facing considerable backlash, yet this backlash is not being translated into support for the other candidates.
What Barnier brings to the stage
That is why Barnier’s entry into the race is far, far more consequential than many are letting on. As both the EU’s Chief Negotiator for the withdrawal agreement and then Head of the UK Task Force, Barnier garnered quite significant positive coverage in the EU and France. Besides just being the EU’s negotiator, Barnier has been a minister four times over, and a European Commissioner twice since entering politics.
However, Barnier’s bid is not without issue: first, due to who Barnier is, and secondly, due to the party he plans to stand for. When it comes to Barnier himself, he’s far from the most popular or ‘outgoing’ candidate. Whilst the likes of Macron and Le Pen are more outward, ‘meet and greet’ candidates (so much so it got Macron a smack in the face), for many, Barnier lacks that personal touch. One of his fellow conservatives – i.e. an ally – remarked to Le Parisien that “he has great looks but is very, very boring”.
That being said, Barnier’s campaign cannot be cast aside just yet: one has to remember that a) there is still a pandemic going on, vastly limiting what can be done; and b) that he has only *just* announced his candidacy, at a time when most people are returning back to work after the Summer holiday.
What comes next for French politics
On the latter issue, the right has yet to decide which horse it will back. Bertrand is currently the favourite for the nomination but the field is exceptionally crowded. Besides Bertrand and Barnier, Valérie Pécresse, president of Paris’ regional council, Île-de-France, has also declared her intention to run, promising to “restore French pride” with a “feminist social touch”.
One way to potentially resolve the conflict and select a candidate to rally around would be a primary. The issue here is that whilst Pécresse has declared that she would submit to a primary election if need be, Bertrand has not. Bertrand has specifically stated that if the party refuses to nominate him outright, he will stand as an independent: a move that would throw a firework into the mix, splitting the centre-right vote in half.
All this exposes the acute situation France and the French people find themselves in: the two candidates expected to make it to the run-off stage are a vastly unpopular incumbent and someone from the far-right whom the traditional political parties fear and regularly attempt to block from power.
As the common adage goes, a ‘week is a long time in politics’ and with more than six months to go, anything can and probably will happen.