Michel Barnier’s ‘Frexit outburst’ is a plea for attention more than anything else

Michel Barnier doesn’t want Frexit, he only wants to be loved.

Struggling with an impossibly uphill task to become France’s next president, Mr Barnier has reached for the Vote Leave playbook and committed the cardinal sin, in Brussels at least, of calling for a referendum.

The former Brexit negotiator has suggested a halt to all non-EU immigration into France, with the exception of all students and asylum seekers, for up to five years.

He compounded this populist ploy by demanding that French courts take back their sovereignty from European judges on matters to do with migration.

The old Mr Barnier would not have hesitated to brand this “constitutional shield” cherry-picking. But the politician on the national campaign trail is very happy to try and have his cake and eat it.

Brexiteers in Britain were quick to brand Mr Barnier a hypocrite and even claim he could lead France out of the EU. Barnier’s fans in Brussels and Britain clutched their collective pearls in horror.

But Mr Barnier has not transformed into a rabid Frexiteer overnight, he just wants to get noticed by an indifferent electorate. 

The wily Brussels veteran, with the odds stacked against him, has taken note of the shock Brexit vote and is applying its lessons.

His campaign is focused on reaching out to those who feel abandoned by globalisation and are itching to deal the elites a healthy kick in the goolies at the ballot box.

His party, the centre-Right Les Republicains is a shadow of its former self, outflanked by disruptors like pro-EU incumbent Emmanuel Macron and the eurosceptic Marine Le Pen.

Mr Barnier hopes his insurgent campaign will rebuild his party. But his profile in France is comparatively low to his rivals, despite Brexit, after more than 15 years working in Brussels.

So he has parked his tanks on Ms Le Pen’s lawn with a policy that looks to exploit French Islamophobia and win back lost voters.

Some hope this gambit is a machiavellian plot by Mr Barnier to undermine Mr Macon’s main competition and ensure France’s place at the heart of the EU.

Far more likely is that Mr Barnier simply wants to be president like his hero Charles de Gaulle. He may feel his time has come after two failed attempts to become European Commission president and his ego burnished by the Brexit years of being feted round the EU’s capitals.

During his time in Brussels, Mr Barnier was fond of saying that he was a politician rather than a faceless technocrat. He has proved that with his transformation.

His demands on Europe are not as radical as they appear. The UK had, and Denmark and Ireland, have opt-outs in this area, where national governments still have the lion’s share of power.

The  call to regain lost sovereignty from the European courts is a trope of Brexit and unlikely to ever get assent from Brussels.

But the EU has form in coming up with inventive fudges, especially when the demand comes from an influential member state rather than one who is leaving the bloc.

David Cameron managed to get an emergency brake on migration and an exemption from the treaty requirement for ever closer union in his doomed EU reform talks with Brussels.

Mr Barnier, with a far superior grasp of EU politicking and at the head of a founder member state, could do better.

But first he must achieve the impossible and get elected.

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