Michel Barnier in the spotlight of the French elections as the turn to the right bears fruit | Michel barnier

IAt a thriving western Paris restaurant, fans of former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier gathered to hear their hero speak, cheering on the mild-mannered 70-year-old who passed by from a ranked foreigner to a potential favorite in the contest to pick a presidential candidate for right-wing Republicans.

Barnier is one of the big surprises of the unpredictable pre-election season in France. He was known for nearly 50 years in French right-wing politics as a centrist, liberal-minded neo-Gaullist, devoted to the European cause. But he stunned observers by significantly hardening his stance as the right-wing party prepared to vote on its candidate early next month.

“There are two conditions for things to improve in France: security and immigration,” Barnier said gravely, to applause. “There are tensions, a risk of confrontation, we must restore calm and restore calm in people’s lives. For that, we need an electric shock in terms of security and immigration.

He says it was last Christmas Eve, hours after the post-Brexit deal was signed with the UK, when he said he missed France and wanted to be “useful” in French policy, that he began to think about the candidacy of the French president to beat Emmanuel. Macron and, he says, unite divided French society.

Barnier says unregulated immigration from outside the EU weakens France’s sense of identity. He believes the UK’s vote to leave the EU has shown how dangerous it can be to allow divisions in society to fester. He pledged a three to five-year French moratorium on non-EU immigrants, during which even family members joining immigrants will be arrested, and called for France to recover the legal sovereignty of EU courts. European. During this moratorium on immigration, he declared: “we will take measures to review all the procedures that do not work to make them more rigorous and fairer”.

Critics say it is not clear how France, a member of the EU’s Schengen free movement area, could implement this without violating EU law. The Left says he is chasing far-right Marine Le Pen and another potential candidate, far-right television specialist Eric Zemmour. Barnier called the reviews “pathetic” and said he just wants to improve the way things work.

The quest to choose a presidential candidate for Nicolas Sarkozy’s traditional right-wing party, Les Républicains, has certainly been defined by harsh language about immigration and identity.

Not only Barnier, but his other main competitors Рformer ministers Sarkozy, Val̩rie P̩cresse and Xavier Bertrand Рhave all deviated from their centrist past to appeal to more conservative tendencies in party membership. Nearly 150,000 party members will decide on the candidate in an internal vote, with the winner announced on December 4. The outcome is impossible to predict, with 69,000 people joining or joining the party since September and no profile on how they might vote.

But ultimately it’s a personality contest, and that’s where Barnier created the momentum and surprise. Initially dismissed by some as too bland, he has drawn supporters who believe he is a reliable statesman, able to end fighting within the party and understand provincial France. Alpinist and hiker in the Alps, who has built his career in local village politics, he walks in ancient forests and recalls that he loves trees. “You cannot be in politics or become president without loving trees,” he recently told Paris Match. First elected at 22 as a town councilor in Savoy, he then entered Parliament at only 27 in 1978. He was four times government minister and twice European commissioner. His supporters point out that he has won all the direct votes he has defended since the age of 22.

“I have never been a technocrat, I have always been a politician,” Barnier said in Paris. Former Minister of the Environment and co-organizer of the 1992 Winter Olympics, he knows climate change is of concern to right-wing rural voters and makes it personal. “I come from a mountainous region where a third of the economy depends on snow,” he told the crowd at the restaurant to applause. Famous for his dedication to spreadsheets and files, he is still often seen with a branded information folder tucked under his arm.

Antoinette, 74, a retired parliamentary attaché in Paris, said: ‘When we were in our twenties and we were in parliament I would see him at lunch – it was usually sausages – and he was just nice and decent . “

Francis Szpiner, mayor of the Republicans of the 16the arrondissement of Paris, borrowed a campaign label from former socialist president François Mitterrand, to call Barnier “the quiet force”.

Barnier’s main rivals, Bertrand and Pécresse, are superior to him in the polls of the general electorate. But both left Les Républicains after Macron’s victory in 2017 to work on their own political projects. Barnier has remained – something that party members are taking note of. “In politics, loyalty is a virtue,” Szpiner said.

At Barnier’s modern and open-plan campaign headquarters near the Elysee Palace, a senior member of his team said: by his position, and the fact that he would govern differently.

Barnier promises to serve only one term as president. He says he would contrast what he sees as Macron’s “lonely” mode of decision-making, working instead with different parts of society and local government.

Olivier Rouquan, from the Center for Administrative and Political Sciences at the University of Paris, said of party membership: “They are older electorate, they know Barnier and he resembles them in many ways. He stepped aside from his European period in Brussels, because part of this electorate is very focused on security and immigration issues. That’s why he took this turn. All the candidates did the same. Barnier did not want to be accused of being too moderate. But he made a 180-degree turn, proposing to revise the constitution on immigration. Will it work? We do not know.

Colette, 75, a former hospital scientist and longtime party member, said: “Frankly, I find him stable and reassuring, and these days that is what matters.”