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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Feb-18 > The opponent

The opponent

At the end of last year, he saved the prime minister. In 2018, he holds the fate of the whole country in his hands. So it’s probably a good time to pay the Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, a little attention, suggests Christine Ockrent

Britons should be aware that Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, doesn’t like to be bounced. He prefers to proceed methodically. He chooses his words carefully and when he speaks, he looks you straight in the eye. But he reddens easily when contradicted and is not the type for making light of absurd situations—he admits he could work a little more on his sense of humour.

Barnier comes from the Alpine département of Savoie, in the French southeast, where hard work is the rule and reticence regarded as a mark of wisdom. His boyhood home was Albertville, a small, grey industrial city on the way to France’s ski resorts, best known for its Beaufort cheese—and for the 1992 Winter Olympics. Barnier, a local MP at the time, managed almost single-handedly to convince both French and foreign Olympic officials that the town was the place for France to display the full splendour of its winter sporting culture. It was a huge success. “Ten years of my life for 16 days of performance!” Barnier recalled to me with a glow of pride.

Just turned 67, he has been involved in French and European politics for some 40 years and has often been underestimated over that time. He isn’t one for bombast, and lacks the sophisticated cynicism that’s rife in Parisian political circles. You might say that he’s a little bit square, even goody-goody, with his daily runs and his fondness for trees (one report suggests Barnier has a habit of kneeling down in front of an ancient oak on his family estate and paying homage to its longevity). When one French diplomat heard back in 1999 that Barnier had been picked as France’s European Commissioner, he exclaimed: “A ski instructor?” And Barnier has presence—he is tall and handsome in an old-fashioned way.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February 2018 issue: John Naughton, James Ball, Yuan Ren, Hannah Jane Parkinson and Houman Barekat outline the ways in which our lives are controlled by big tech giants. Naughton argues that Facebook and Google have created a new “surveillance capitalism” in which they battle to grow user engagement of their products and monetise our lives for their own gain as they do so. The cover package also explores how “bots,” fake social media accounts, influenced the US presidential vote and the Brexit referendum as well as the effects of removing net neutrality in the US. Elsewhere in the issue: Samira Shackle asks what happens to ordinary civilians affected by Islamic State as they attempt to move back to their homes and rebuild their lives; Shahidha Bari asks whether we can continue to appreciate the work of actors, filmmakers and writers who have been disgraced; and Christine Ockrent profiles Michel Barnier.