Barnier would terrify English Francophobes as a French president who refuses to accept any of the lies that won the Brexit vote
For the moment, the English are not interested in the French election. Brexit has dulled us into a sleepy indifference about European affairs. Boris Johnson proclaims the arrival of a “Global Britain”, an invocation of the time when the United Kingdom was a world power. It is becoming a resurrection of the fantasy of an Anglosphere dominating the world.
The problem is that President Joe Biden, who always calls himself an Irishman, is not interested in fuelling this fantasy. Meanwhile, the behaviour of a hard-right Australian prime minister, who is largely unknown in Britain, in deceiving France on submarines has caused as much embarrassment as pleasure in London. In exchange for the Aukus deal, Australia now wants to dump all its lamb production into English supermarkets. The National Farmers Union, understandably, says this will destroy the excellent lamb produced in small farms on the hills of Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire.
But now the ruling English are waking up to their worst nightmare. While the anti-European press has been promoting France’s Eric Zemmour as the anti-European, hostile to Muslims, who can challenge President Macron, there is emerging an even bigger fear in London.
Might Monsieur Brexit, Michel Barnier, the man who comprehensively out-negotiated Boris Johnson to produce a Brexit treaty that is now doing damage to the economy, society and self-confidence of the English Europhobe elites, be the next president of France?
Barnier is the best known French politician other than President Macron in Britain. The anti-French commentariat in London regularly describe Macron as a “Poundland Napoleon”. Two hundred years after his death, the French emperor remains a hate figure for English conservatives.
The English right assumed that, after Brexit, the EU would be fatally weakened and there would be a rise of Brexit-type politics across Europe. They were delighted when Marine Le Pen hailed Brexit and put the Union Flag on her social media accounts in June 2016.
But the opposite happened. Emmanuel Macron comprehensively beat Le Pen in 2017. Since then, to the disappointment of the Boris Johnson camp in England, she has given up calling for a referendum on “Frexit” or even leaving the Euro.
The same has happened in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands where anti-European, anti-immigrant populists like Matteo Salvini and Geert Wilders have faded and lost votes to pro-European politicians from the centre, liberals, greens and social democrats.
With Angela Merkel gone, the champion of Europe internationally is Emmanuel Macron – much to the fury of the London political elites who are desperate to prove Brexit a success and a model for other nations in Europe. Now they fear that even if Macron is defeated, his replacement will be the most committed European in French politics over four decades – Michel Barnier.
In theory, Barnier should find favour with the English. He is a youthful 70-year-old, kept fit by walking, climbing and biking in the alpine region of Savoie. He is a man of the outdoors, of the countryside. While he has learnt to speak excellent English in the run-up to the Brexit negotiations he is not part of Enarque elite and does not claim to be a splashy intellectual or a permanent presence in the soirées of political Paris.
Patronised by Jacques Chirac for his life-long pro-Europeanism, Barnier has held top ministerial posts including Agriculture and Foreign Affairs and has twice been France’s choice to hold down a key European Commission portfolio.
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I had many long conversations with him when I was a minister at the Foreign Office and he was French foreign minister. French ministers have their own government planes serving the finest food and wine – though Barnier eats moderately and drinks little – while British foreign ministers are expected to use Ryanair or Easyjet.
One thing that the British do not understand about Barnier and a point he always insisted on in our many conversations over 20 years is that he is a “social” Gaullist. Barnier has a certain idea of Social France. He is the Joe Biden of French politics – unflashy, solid, hugely experienced, dependable, with appeal that extends beyond party allegiance. He comprehensively out-negotiated David Frost, Boris Johnson’s man in the Brexit treaty talks, with results we see today, as Britain wakes up to the Johnson variant of Brexit which is causing real economic damage and demoralisation among young British citizens who have lost all rights to live, work, study or build a life and career on the continent.
If Michel Barnier gets Les Républicains nomination, he will be Emmanuel Macron’s biggest threat. And he will be a nightmare for English Francophobes as a French president who refuses to accept any of the lies that won the Brexit populist plebiscite.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe. His latest book, ‘Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain’, is out now