In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched his agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, to the European Commission. It was an elegant manoeuvre that suited both men.
The hyperkinetic, mercurial Parisian and the tall, slightly gauche “man of the mountains” from the Alpine region of Savoy had more in common than appearances suggested. Both were pragmatists who also saw themselves as outsiders – Sarkozy the child of Jewish Hungarian descent, Barnier the plain-speaking montagnard. Neither had gone to the École Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for the Parisian elite, and that elite looked down their noses at both of them. “Le crétin des Alpes,” his rivals called Barnier.
But Sarkozy, then at the height of his powers after two years in the Élysée Palace, was not particularly close to Barnier, whom he once reportedly said had "the charisma of an oyster" and who, as a Gaulliste social, belonged to a social-democrat faction that Sarkozy had sidelined within the ruling centre-right bloc. By nominating Barnier, whose previous stint at the commission gave him political capital and a network in Brussels, France would secure the influential internal markets portfolio. It was a non-trivial bonus that this would royally irk London, whose financial services sector would face being regulated by a man with rudimentary English and a long-held scepticism towards financial capitalism. The British were "big losers" in the battle for top Brussels jobs that year, Sarkozy gloated. Barnier got a plum post in a city where – unlike in Paris, as he saw it – he was respected. It was widely assumed, including perhaps by Sarkozy himself, that after five years in the relative obscurity of the Berlaymont, Barnier would shuffle off the stage.
Twelve years on, the two men’s fortunes have indeed diverged. But it is Barnier who is widely feted and Sarkozy whose reputation is on the floor. For the ex-president, a conviction this week for corruption and influence-peddling marks the nadir in a political career that all but ended in May 2012, when he became only the second head of state in the modern French republic to fail to win a second term. Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing and has lodged an appeal. He continues quietly to exert influence within the centre-right Républicains, and many of his colleagues long for him to return to save the beleaguered party, but the court decision all but closes off the possibility of his rehabilitation.
Barnier has hardly had it all his own way since moving to Brussels in 2009. He twice lost out on a job he coveted, the commission presidency – first to Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014, then to Ursula von der Leyen in 2019 – and is said to have believed he was a contender for the post of French prime minister when Macron was considering candidates last year. When his term as commissioner ended in 2014, it was widely assumed he had retired.
But Brexit remade Barnier. Having overseen the EU-UK divorce, followed by agreement on the future relationship, all while maintaining a level of continental unity that many feared would quickly fall away under the strain of competing interests, Barnier’s stock has never been higher. Not for the first time, he was underestimated. Today he has the ear of the bloc’s most powerful leaders but is seen as an ally by small states, where he has cannily cultivated relationships since his time as regional policy commissioner in the early 2000s. His work on Brexit has made him Ireland’s favourite French man. Le Monde recently called him “the French man with the greatest European career since Jacques Delors”.
In Paris speculation is rife that the 70-year-old might attempt a run for the presidency next year. He has encouraged the rumours: after setting up a political grouping within Les Républicains, called Patriote et Européen, he has become a frequent speaker in party rooms and in radio studios, where he holds forth on domestic policy and calls for a “solid and united” centre-right. In April he will publish a book based on his Brexit diaries. In a fractured field in a broken party, riven by internal rivalries, his hopes rest on his ability to show well in opinion polls; ultimately his colleagues will support whoever has the best chance of getting them re-elected. Early polls put him in third place among the main centre-right contenders.
It’s a long shot. No French politician has ever used success at EU level as a springboard to the highest offices at home. Barnier’s brand of pro-European centrism has gone out of fashion on the centre-right, where the reactionary, nativist drift that began under Sarkozy has only accelerated since he left office. Barnier draws on the same pool of support as Macron, but many of his party colleagues are convinced they must compete with the far-right to have any chance of returning to power. And as the returning exile Barnier is no doubt aware, it is an iron law of French opinion polling that the less voters see or hear from a politician, the more they like him or her.
Just ask Nicolas Sarkozy, who is more popular since leaving office than he ever was as president.