Barnier launches political faction, fueling French presidential bid rumours

PARIS (Reuters) - The European Union’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Tuesday he was setting up a political faction under the name “Patriot and European”, fuelling rumours that he was mulling a possible bid in next year’s presidential election.

FILE PHOTO: European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks during a meeting of the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union (COREPER) in Brussels, Belgium December 22, 2020. John Thys/Pool via REUTERS

“I am available to work with all those who want it under the banner of ‘Patriot and European’, so as not to leave this theme to others,” Barnier told centre-right lawmakers in a closed-door meeting, according to a participant.

The faction was presented as a “working group” within the centre-right Les Republicains party, the participant said.

Barnier’s office did not return a request for comment.

More than a year before the first round of the 2022 presidential election, none of the former mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, who were shut out by centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in 2017, have chosen a candidate.

Each camp is abuzz with rumours, and sources on the right cite Barnier, but also ex-ministers Xavier Bertrand and Valerie Pecresse, as well as senator Bruno Retailleau as possible candidates for the main centre-right party, Les Republicains.

A possible bid by Barnier, a 70-year old former French foreign minister, is being closely watched by Macron’s camp, as he would eat at the pro-European, centre-right electorate the president is targeting.

“There’s a Biden moment. Grey hair could become fashionable,” a minister told Reuters on condition of anonymity, when asked about Barnier.

Barnier said on French radio in December he saw himself serving his home country in some capacity following his work on negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, without elaborating.

A diplomat in Brussels told Reuters he was “actively evaluating his chances” for the presidential election, which current polls show Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen as likely to reach the second round.

On the left, sources in Macron’s government say Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is also mulling a presidential bid. The Spanish-born 61-year old Socialist is no longer ruling out running for president in interviews.

“Hidalgo is going to go for it. Her team is ready for battle,” one official told Reuters.

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Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Michel Rose in Paris, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Angus MacSwan