Morning Brief

Would Michel Barnier Stand a Chance Against Macron?

The former Brexit negotiator has sparked rumors of a presidential bid, but the race seems frozen in 2017.

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with then-European Commission Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier prior at the Elysée palace in Paris, on January 31, 202.
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with then-European Commission Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier prior at the Elysée palace in Paris, on January 31, 202. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier sparks rumors of a French presidential bid, Aung San Suu Kyi is charged with a second offense in Myanmar, and the United States downgrades its relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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Barnier Sparks Presidential Bid Rumors

The European Union’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has started rumors of a presidential bid in France’s 2022 elections after he announced the formation of the “Patriot and European” faction among the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) party on Tuesday.

If he does run, the 70-year-old is likely to encounter a crowded field on the right. French President Emmanuel Macron—faced with a challenge from his 2017 opponent, the far-right Marine Le Pen—has spent the last few months carefully burnishing his conservative credentials.

On Tuesday, the French National Assembly passed a sweeping bill against “Islamist separatism,” that has been decried by the left as Islamophobic. The 51-article legislation would require mosques to declare foreign support above $12,000, severely restrict home-schooling, and include financial penalties for pressuring public officials to deviate from French secular values.

The bill now goes to the French Senate where more amendments could be added, as Macron’s En Marche party does not hold a majority in the upper house.

A frozen electorate. Despite Macron’s maneuverings, his approval ratings, along with Le Pen’s, have been essentially frozen for months. In a poll conducted by Ipsos at the end of January, both candidates received roughly 25 percent support, with none of the other prospective candidates breaking 20 percent. Crucially, when asked who they would support in a one-on-one contest, 56 percent of respondents said they would support Macron.

If Barnier were to enter the race, he would have to do better than his would-be predecessor François Fillon, who received 20 percent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election’s first round—albeit under the cloud of a corruption scandal.

Nothing new? Barnier may also face a problem of marketing. A pro-European stance will only appeal to so many: A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found French support for the European Union close to split, with 47 percent holding an unfavorable opinion and 51 percent seeing the bloc favorably.

Speaking to Radio France Internationale, Julien Aubert, an LR deputy in the National Assembly known to have political ambitions of his own, summed up the challenge facing Barnier. For him, it came down to whether Barnier could offer something different to Macron. Did Barnier fit that bill? “Pour moi, non,” Aubert said.

What We’re Following Today

Myanmar developments. Myanmar’s military charged leader Aung San Suu Kyi with a second offense on Tuesday, in a secret trial that began a day earlier than scheduled. The National League for Democracy leader was charged with violating Myanmar’s natural disaster management law, according to her lawyer—who was not present for her trial. The move adds to another charge she faces for allegedly violating import controls by possessing walkie-talkies.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military gave journalists a “guarantee” that an election would soon be held and claimed the country’s democratically-elected leaders were not detained—but merely staying in their homes for security reasons. The statement came as the U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews warned of increased violence against protesters in the coming days. “I am terrified that given the confluence of these two developments—planned mass protests and troops converging—we could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar,” he said.

Japan’s vaccine drive. Japan begins vaccinating its citizens against COVID-19 today, becoming the final member of the G-7 nations to do so. The delay came after Japan conducted its own clinical tests on the Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy before approving it. Medical workers will be first to receive the vaccine, while the elderly are expected to get their first shots in April. Vaccine skepticism threatens the inoculation effort, however: A recent Mainichi survey found that fewer than 40 percent of respondents wanted the shots right away, while roughly 60 percent wanted to wait and see.

Sidelining MBS. The United States will downgrade its engagement with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the Biden administration’s drive to “recalibrate” relations with the kingdom, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. President Joe Biden will instead conduct diplomacy through Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, dealing a blow to the crown prince’s standing in Washington. According to Bloomberg, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be the primary point of contact for Mohammed bin Salman, as he serves as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, among other roles.

Keep an Eye On

EU-China ties. China replaced the United States as the European Union’s top trading partner last year for the first time. The change was driven by a 5.5 percent increase in imports from China and a 2.2 percent increase in exports, while other imports and exports dropped by roughly 10 percent each. The trade data may be a pandemic induced anomaly, however the shift could be become more concrete in the wake of the recently agreed EU-China trade pact.

Military recruitment. A meager job market has given military recruitment a boost around the world, the Wall Street Journal reports. In Canada, applications to join the armed services surged 37 percent over the last nine months of 2020 compared to the previous year. Australia reported a 9.9 percent annual increase in applications. The United Kingdom met its military recruitment targets for the first time in seven years and in the United States, 92 percent of eligible personnel re-enlisted, compared to just 83 percent the previous year.

Odds and ends

Toothless travel restrictions. Irish holidaymakers have suddenly shown a keen interest in dental hygiene as they attempt to shirk strict lockdown measures to escape the bleak North Atlantic winter. Traveling for “essential medical, health or dental services” is allowed under Ireland’s coronavirus restrictions, leading to a surge in dental surgery appointments in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Roberta Beccaris, a receptionist at a dental surgeon’s office on the island of Tenerife, reported taking multiple calls from prospective Irish clients, who have demanded e-mail confirmations of the bookings. Police can issue fines to rule-breaking travelers of roughly $600, although they are powerless to stop those with proof of a medical appointment.

“Obviously as they are not turning up, we now understand it is just an excuse for a holiday. They are taking appointments away from people who need them, who are in pain,” she told RTÉ radio.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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