In August of this year, Michel Barnier announced his intention to run in next year’s French presidential elections and as part of his campaign proposals, he suggests a 3–5 year moratorium on extra-EU immigration.
“France Must Take Back Control” rejoiced the Daily Express on 9 September, claiming that Michel Barnier demands “legal sovereignty” from the EU in a “Frexit move”. Not to be outdone, the Mail Online piped in with the highly original “Michel Barnier backs Frexit”.
Michel Barnier the politician
Whilst it’s true that Barnier’s recent proposals concerning immigration have shocked many, a closer look at his career, and the current lay of the land, can shed a little light and perhaps calm the waters.
If anyone in modern politics understands the European Union it’s Michel Barnier.
According to Wikipedia, Barnier was born to a leather and textile craftsman in the French Alps. He went on to attend the ESCP (Ecole Supérieur de Commerce de Paris), one of France’s most prestigious and selective Grand Écoles.
He became the youngest deputé (MP) in the French assembly when he won his first seat at the age of 27. Entering the French cabinet in 1995 as secretary of state for European affairs, he began an impressive career at the heart of the European project becoming a European commissioner and then cabinet minister of foreign affairs. It is this last post that saw Barnier marked deeply and to which the origins of his recent stance on immigration can be traced.
France’s own EU referendum – on ratifying the constitution of Europe
On 29 May 2005, France held a referendum to decide whether the country should ratify the proposed treaty to establish a constitution for Europe. Barnier was the minister for foreign affairs at the time and was known for being significantly more experienced and invested in the EU than his predecessors.
As Britain now knows only too well, referendums can be a dangerous tool with which to carve international policy. There were several matters addressed in the vote, clumsily mingling the EU constitution with general questions on the cost of living, unemployment and social conditions.
The country voted against the proposal and Barnier was made the scapegoat for this humiliating defeat for Chirac’s government. He was replaced after only seven months in office.
Former British Eurocrat, Graham Meadows, who led Barnier’s department at the commission told the Financial Times in July 2016 that, “if he thinks he’s wronged, he does not forget”.
Barnier openly spoke of his extreme disappointment at the referendum defeat, at his treatment following the vote and his subsequent removal from office. It led him to explore what went wrong and it’s at this point that he started viewing immigration as the main obstacle to the population embracing membership of the EU with more enthusiasm.
Immigration as an obstacle to greater EU integration
In 2009, Barnier told La Vie Publique (a government site giving information around key political topics of the day) that following the referendum defeat by which he was “très marqué”, he went amongst the electorate to find out why they rejected the proposed EU constitution.
He identified a perception that Europe had no borders, no limits; people expressed anxiety at losing their (national) identity and the soul of France. He concluded “Il faut que l’Europe ait ses limites …c’est notre projet, les frontières c’est celles de continent européen” “Europe must have limits, it’s our project (the Europeans), the borders are those of the European continent.”
In 2006 he joined the European Amato Group unofficially writing what went on to become the Lisbon Treaty – in effect the rewritten European constitution – and in 2007 became minister for agriculture and fisheries, another portfolio steeped in European politics.
Michel Barnier without the EU seems impossible to imagine, it’s in his DNA, it appears. Yet as far back as 2005, he told La Vie Publique that he is, and has always has been pro-EU, whilst at the same time, wary of unfettered immigration.
Michel Barnier: conservative republican
It’s important to remember that were he a British politician, Barnier would most probably be a one nation Tory. He’s right of centre and he is now hoping to be the candidate for his Républicain party.
If you ask the average ‘citoyen’ on the street in France, depending on your age, Michel Barnier is either the bloke who brought the Winter Olympics to the French town of Albertville in 1992, or he’s the Brexit negotiator. He’s not that well known outside of those things and so he has to make a name for himself.
He is perceived as having been an effective and fair player in the Brexit negotiations, and also, quite accurately, pro-EU. But this can also represent a problem for a political candidate hoping to win voters back from the more extreme fringes of the right as well as from Macron’s centre party.
The French far right
Marine Le Pen is once again predicted to go up against Macron in the second round of next year’s elections. This would be a re-run of the 2017 presidential elections which took place only months after the shock of the Brexit vote. The last two standing in the second round were the centrist Macron, defiantly pro-EU, and the fervently eurosceptical, far-right Le Pen, who regurgitated Vote Leave’s slogans such as ‘Projet Peur’ (Project Fear) to dismiss the concerns of her critics and placed immigration at the centre of the world’s woes.
Many predicting the domino effect of Brexit saw this election as the indicator of where the EU was headed. Disintegration or determination. Le Pen was wiped out, winning only 33.9 percent of the vote and putting the notion of Frexit firmly on the back burner.
Though many on the left despaired that she had even got that far, Le Pen claims to have listened to France. She has been working hard to soften her image and has removed Frexit and the return to the French Franc from her political programme.
The swivel-eyed faction of far-right politics therefore found themselves without a home.
Enter Eric Zemmour
Born in France to a Jewish-Algerian family, he is a household name having regularly appeared in the press and on television for years. He is playing ‘will I?, won’t I?’ with the press as to whether he’ll stand but he has already taken part in televised political debates and it’s considered a fait accompli that he’ll throw his hat into the ring. For him, Marine Le Pen is too soft and too left wing.
It seems he is not alone is this interpretation of Marine’s makeover. Zemmour is forging alliances with her younger, blonder, more radical niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, ally of Steve Bannon and the global far right. He is seen as having been endorsed by Victor Orban this month after being invited, with Le PenMinor and Mike Pence, to discuss amongst other things ‘The strength of family and the role of women there-in’.
According to the French newspaper Mediapart, Zemmour ‘fetishises’ borders and national sovereignty and he is unashamedly anti-Islam, claiming that it’s “en train de coloniser l’Europe” “[Islam] is colonising Europe”.
A believer in various conspiracy theories, notably the Great Replacement theory, he advocates a system whereby only names based in Christianity can be held by the French population, bizarrely excluding himself from ‘belonging’ on both counts as Eric is Norse probably Viking and Zemmour is Berber/Jewish.
If he stands, Zemmour most certainly won’t make the second round next year, but recent surveys have shown he would currently attract 10.5 percent of the vote and he is pushing the national debate to the right.
Barnier: a true believer in the European project
It is against this political backdrop that Barnier has entered the fray.
He is a true believer in the European project; so much so, he is petrified that the Eurosceptics on both the left and the right will steal the dialogue. In a 2013 interview with Frédéric Simon for Euractiv.fr, an independent European media network, Barnier warned that if the centre parties – which in his view range from the Parti Socialiste on the left to the Union for Popular Movement (L’UMP, a merger of centre right parties) – don’t tackle and keep control of the immigration debate, it will fall into the hands of Mélenchon (far left) and Le Pen.
In an interview in May of this year with Le Parisien, he described the people crossing the sea in dinghies not as illegal nor as a threat, but as those who are trying to “rejoindre un avenir meilleur” to find a better future. He stressed that France would always welcome students and respect the right to seek asylum – quite a different rhetoric to that coming out of Priti Patel’s Home Office. And it hardly needs to be said that intra-EU migration is a right and a privilege of citizenship.
He is in favour of further political integration in the EU, a unique president of the Commission and the Council, and an EU military defence policy. There is no Frexit on the pages of his playbook.
He believes that the tools to reassure the European population when it comes to immigration are already in place and that the existing treaties are flexible enough to allow for more manoeuvre by individual states to address the matter of who comes and how many, without leaving or even changing the constitutions of the European Court of Justice or the European Convention on Human Rights.
Nigel Farage and Brexit
European politics on the continent are much more nuanced than the reductive British tabloids can cope with. There is such little understanding in Britain, and practically zero education about the EU project in schools, in society and in government. It has been our tragedy that we never even tried, leaving the perception of the EU and the conversation around it to figures like Farage and his ilk to usurp.
Farage, about whom an old school acquaintance wrote to the Independent in May 2019, describing his pride at his ‘NF’ initials and how he loved to chant antisemitic compositions such as “Gas ‘em all” and various Hitler Youth songs. And about whom his teachers expressed concern in a letter obtained by C4 News in 2014 at allowing someone like him, with his “racist, neo-fascist views” to represent the school as a prefect.
He was also known as a school bully, inflicting offensive behaviour on other boys in his ‘set’ (no, he’s not a badger, just an alumni of a minor public school, belying the ‘anti-elite man of the people’ image he loved to project).
It was Farage who shaped the conversation and convinced enough of the electorate that Britain was at ‘breaking point’ (a phrase now used by Eric Zemmour), that they voted to leave the EU. It is exactly this that Barnier is desperate to avoid.
Barnier and immigration
For as long as financial insecurity and fear of the future are constant features of the human psyche, then suspicion of the outsider and anti-immigration sentiment will continue. Barnier doesn’t want to avoid the subject, or to condescend. He wants to be seen to be addressing the issue; trying to consider both sides; talking tough, to prize the media’s attention away from Zemmour’s fantastical rhetoric, back to a seasoned politician who can be relied upon to set a course for a more stable future, balancing the needs and ancient rights of humanity to migrate and to seek an environment in which it can thrive, whilst also addressing the concerns of an indigenous population who have been left behind by the bulldozer effect of capitalism and global growth.
The sad thing is, both are victims of the same machine.
But pandering to extremes can be a dangerous game. It legitimises our basest instincts and Barnier must avoid the mistake of his Anglo-Saxon counterparts. He needs to keep the arguments humane and factual.
All this having been said, he, like Zemmour, is unlikely to make it to round two next year. His party may not even select him to try. But, as he said to his many critics in the light of his recent announcements:
“J’ai été européen avant ces gens, je le serai après” – “I was European before these people, I will be after.”