Barnier talks tough on immigration in quest for France's centre-right presidential ticket

FILE PHOTO: The European Union's former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks at the Chatham House think-tank in London, Britain, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

PARIS (Reuters) - Europe's former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, now seeking the centre-right ticket in France's 2022 election, said the country was deeply divided and accused President Emmanuel Macron of being oblivious to the daily worries of citizens.

Barnier said that what he called out-of-control immigration was weakening France's sense of identity - a pitch to voters within conservative circles of the political right as he seeks to counter the far right.

"When the foundations are fragile, when they move, you cannot build on top," Barnier told reporters. "Our country's base is weak: our unity is fragile, our togetherness is in question."

Barnier is locked in a divisive race for the Les Republicains (LR) party nomination that has brought deep rifts within the party to the surface and distracted from an election race that is warming up six months out from the vote.

Barnier's bid for the presidential nomination was widely dismissed as hopeless in newspaper columns early on, with the 70-year-old perceived by many as a dull, old-school europhile.

However, his promise of a three- to five-year French moratorium for non-European Union immigrants and a call for France to regain legal sovereignty from European Union courts, has appealed to voters concerned by matters of national identity and security, delivering a shot in the arm to his bid.

During the immigration moratorium, he said, "we will take measures to review all the procedures that are not working to make them more rigorous and fairer".

Still, it is not clear how France, a member of the European Union's Schengen free movement area, could implement such a moratorium without violating EU law, Eurointelligence analysts say.

Polls show Macron ahead in the first round of the presidential election, besting two far-right candidates, Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen and maverick TV commentator Eric Zemmour, whose surge in popularity has shifted the election's dynamics.

In the race for the LR ticket, surveys show Barnier trails Xavier Bertrand, a centre-right ex-cabinet minister, and by a narrower margin Valerie Pecresse, president of the greater Paris region, both of whom quit LR after Macron's win in 2017.

However, Barnier's popularity is growing among the rank and file LR members who will vote for their party's nominee, and see him - also an ex-cabinet minister - as an erstwhile loyalist as he never left the party.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Richard Lough)

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