Michel Barnier: election echoes Brexit, French should learn from it

France’s political situation bears a striking similarity to that of the UK in 2016, says the Frenchman who managed the negotiations on behalf of the European Union

EU Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier in 2018
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says that he sees France leaning towards populism, just as the UK did in 2016
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France has many lessons to learn from the UK’s catastrophic descent into populism, says the man who managed the Brexit negotiations for the European Union. This article is written by Michel Barnier

In the end, were the British eight years ahead of us?

The United Kingdom will be led by a new government from July 4, which all indications suggest will be led by Labour with a strong majority [article written before Labour’s landslide victory].

A government that is stable, more open to Europe, and unlike its predecessors, pragmatic.

This comes at the same time that, after the incomprehensible dissolution of its parliament, France may well choose the path of a populist government or of an ungovernable parliament.

Precisely as the British did eight years ago on June 23, 2016 when they voted for Brexit by a small majority.

This followed a campaign marked by the massive release of demagoguery, lies, nostalgia and anger along with the fears of people in rural areas that felt abandoned.

And a result came that was thought unlikely even by those who called for the vote.

During my four years of Brexit negotiations on behalf of the European Union, I raised the alert several times: we must also beware of political events that the clear-thinking elites judge ‘unlikely’.

I had been referring to the election of Ms Le Pen. And now here we are, almost… although not quite.

Read more: French far right: poll downturn and three election scenarios

‘Political posturing rather than facts’

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, in which I protected the interests of Europe with firmness but without giving in to a desire for revenge, two things in particular stood out to me.

The first: that nobody had seriously explained to the British people what the disastrous consequences of Brexit would be in politics, economics, finance and human terms.

Nobody wanted to see a return of the threat that now looms over the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

Like today in France, the vote was founded on slogans rather than facts, on political posturing rather than objective confrontation.

Peoples’ mood, grudges and resentment swept everything away before them. Indeed, the British seemed to have taken to heart the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear:

“Bring in madness, banish reason.”

The forgotten Frexit project

Now that the Rassemblement National presents a more composed face to the world, let us recall the words of Marine Le Pen on the evening of Brexit:

“We share the joy of the British who have seized this extraordinary opportunity to set aside their servitude.”

In the aftermath, she demanded that France hold a similar referendum.

I have not heard Marine Le Pen or Jordan Bardella recognise that they were wrong.

They have not done so as behind the artifice of their communication, they hold an ambition in their heart: to dismantle the European project and make our continent a puzzle of nations shrivelled up against one another to the great joy of the Russians, Chinese... and Americans.

The second: the refusal to look at the true consequences of Brexit for British citizens, consumers and companies with honesty and clarity.

Brexit remains nonsense.

It forced us to reconstruct the border checks and non-tariff barriers that were no longer in use, to the detriment of commerce and exchange.

Above all, it offers no response to the legitimate fear and anger of the British people: immigration is at a higher level and more out of control than ever, and public services are in critical condition.

In sum, Brexit has been nothing more than a great illusion, a lie.

In a similar way to how the Brexiteers betrayed the British people and the national interest of their country, French populists from both the far-left and far-right are willing to lie about anything.

Neither of them, with their unrealistic and dangerous electoral promises, offer any solution to arrest the decline and impoverishment of rural areas.

Read more: ‘Don’t be like Brits who cried over Brexit’- French PM tells EU voters

‘Solidarity should be the aim'

Our fellow citizens, in particular the poor and those who suffer, deserve more consideration than this.

Yes, it is possible to have order in the streets, on our borders and in our public accounts.

Yes, it is possible to re-establish security, authority, dignity, merit and respect in our society.

However, this must certainly not come at the price of lowering our guard against Russia or assuming an unacceptable attitude of indulgence towards anti-Semitism or radical Islam.

It is possible - as Europe has finally started to realise - to rebuild the areas of agricultural and industrial production of our country by being less naive in our commercial exchanges, and ceasing to be ‘herbivores in a world of carnivores’.

It is only together that we can face down global conflict as well as the threat of terrorism, climate change and natural disasters.

It is together that we can adapt our societies to the economic and social revolution that will be brought about by artificial intelligence.

Above all, let us not fall for the lie claiming that it is only by closing French society in on itself, turning in on our own bitterness and fears, that we can find a path towards a progress that can be shared by all.

It is a difficult path that we must take, along the crest of a ridge, where balance, nuance and respect are the risks required. It is a path that demands of all of us the courage and solidarity that have been too often lacking in our elites.

Now is the time for the political elites to fulfil their duty of truthfulness.

What are the real dangers of ‘servitude’ today and how can we shield ourselves from them?

The great illusion is to believe that we can deal with the often brutal transformations of this world on our own.

In the face of the world’s new political, economic and financial giants, we must stop believing in the promise of solitary identity and sovereignty, but rather grasp for solidarity.

I share the attachment that we all feel for our home, our country.

I also know that to fight against nationalism we need to have nation states.

And a strong, proud and united French nation is certainly the best defence against the passionate intensity of Ms le Pen and the communitarianism of Mr Mélenchon.

Yes, the French people still have time to learn the lessons of Brexit.

Michel Barnier is a former French government minister who acted as the European Union’s representative in the Brexit negotiations

This article first appeared in Le Figaro on June 24, 2024 © Tribune de Michel Barnier, Le Figaro