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Michel Barnier emerges as Macron challenger with party loyalty

Even Michel Barnier’s friends and political allies didn’t give him much of a chance of winning the presidential nomination for the center-right Les Républicains party when he announced himself as a candidate in the summer – let alone he is likely to beat Emmanuel Macron next April.

In recent weeks, however, the outlook for the former EU Brexit negotiator, who over the past five years has been better known in Brussels and across the Channel than in his native France, has begun to improve. .

Barnier’s popularity within the party and the perception by some voters that he seemed more “presidential” than his opponents, gave him a good chance of victory as LR members chose their candidate. on December 4th.

For months, the leading LR candidates were Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region to the north, and Valérie Pécresse from the Ile-de-France region around Paris.

But Barnier – who describes himself as “enthusiasticly reasonable” – “could emerge as a mediator [in the LR]”, said Virginie Martin, professor of politics at Kedge Business School in Paris.

Whoever wins the party vote has been promised backing the losers, putting that person on track to challenge Macron and far-right politicians Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour for the Elysée Palace.

Ideally, there’s little that separates Barnier from the other four LR hopefuls, with a true statement about deficit reduction and immigration control. But party activists contrasted his allegiance to the LR with the opportunism of Bertrand and Pécresse, both of whom abandoned the party temporarily to pursue their broader political ambitions.

Michel Barnier, left, talks with President Emmanuel Macron
Michel Barnier, left, talks with President Emmanuel Macron © Michel Euler / EPA

François-Xavier Bellamy, a member of the European Parliament for the party with some skepticism about the return of those who have shut the door.

A poll showed Barnier’s loyalty gave him an edge among 80,000 LR supporters who were members before the vote was announced.

But since then, another 50,000 people have paid €30 each to participate so they can vote for their favorite next month. No one is sure who has the most support among these newcomers.

Barnier’s other advantage is that he is increasingly recognized as the most classic “president” among the LR candidates. He has long experience in France and abroad as a government minister (environment, Europe, foreign affairs, agriculture) and European commissioner.

Patrick Hetzel, a member of Parliament who supports the 70-year-old, said: “If you’re talking about seriousness, he’s going ahead.

“[With Macron elected at 39] everyone says we have a young president of the republic, and now everyone sees the limit of having someone so young and perhaps inexperienced. . . The successful candidate must create a real contrast to Mr. Macron and he is the best person to do so. We need a different kind of management.”

Éric Ciotti, Valérie Pécresse, Michel Barnier, Philippe Juvin and Xavier Bertrand create televised debate
From left to right: Éric Ciotti, Valérie Pécresse, Michel Barnier, Philippe Juvin and Xavier Bertrand pose for the televised debate © Thomas Samson / AFP / Getty Images

Vincent Martigny, a professor of politics at the University of Nice, agrees that Barnier – tall and stout, though not as high as the republican hero Charles de Gaulle – is considered to have the qualities of a general. system.

“People think he has the role for it, he has the right stuff,” Martigny said. “Barnier has something of the essence of a statesman. He is a good negotiator. “

But the apparent recent shift to the right by the LR and all its candidates as they seek to spark voter support for the populist, anti-Muslim Zemmour faction could pose problems. for the party in the broader national campaign that will begin in earnest in January, Martigny said.

That is because a traditionally moderate like Barnier will either be subject to unfamiliar hard-line policies on issues such as immigration and Europe, and thus alienate French voters from the left and center. mind, or frustrate the warriors of his own party by toning down his earlier rhetoric.

“If you listen to what they [the LR candidates] Currently in the campaign, most of them qualify as being compatible with the far right,” said Martigny.

Barnier began his campaign by calling for a three- to five-year suspension of immigration to France, then stunned his former EU colleagues by questioning the superiority of European law. and called for France’s “legitimate sovereignty” over migration issues. That prompted a member of Macron’s government to remark bitterly that “Barnier will never convince LR Eurosceptics that he is anti-European”.

However, LR voters seem to like Barnier’s plan and reject the idea that they place him in the same camp as Eurosceptic Polish nationalists or British Brexiteers, instead. it argued that his dealings with the UK made him aware of EU failures.

LR’s Bellamy said: “For him, Brexit is a warning that Europeans have not been paying enough attention – especially on the issue of migration.”

“Barnier is playing radical because he needs to be voted on,” countered Martigny, adding that the danger for LR is that its fighters have become radicalized on the right wing “to the point where they leave a great corridor of power for any candidate from the center.”

Macron, who rocked French politics and won in 2017 with the promise of “neither nor left”, is therefore still the candidate to beat in April – but Barnier will have a chance to be. become the most sensible person if he can win the favor of next month’s party.

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