On 19 June 2017, the day Britain's negotiations to leave the EU opened, a Daily Telegraph
cartoon portrayed the scene in the negotiating chamber, high in the Berlaymont. At one end of a long table, a red-faced David Davis, lately recipient of the black spot as UK Brexit Secretary, is rifling frantically through a chaotic pile of position papers and conflicting policy imperatives. At the other, hands folded placidly, sits EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. 'Whenever you're ready, Mr Davis,' he says.
Barnier reproduces this cartoon in his newly-published account of the negotiations, My Secret Brexit Diary
. It is hard to think of a better summation of how the EU was able to brush aside half-baked and discordant British attempts to evade costs, cherry-pick the single market without accepting its disciplines, undermine Barnier, and lever divisions among 27 very different EU member states… which remained implacably united.
History will blame Theresa May's sucker-punch decision to set herself the Article 50 deadline without any clear idea of what Britain's objectives were or how it might attain them, the consequence of a warring polity. Barnier, by contrast, was exhaustively prepared, meeting constantly with every EU leader and institution to keep everyone at ease with his fastidiously thought-through strategy. It was a masterclass in political astuteness, diplomacy and polite resolve.
Now Barnier wants to be President of France. His CV couldn't be bettered: twice an EU Commissioner; variously French Foreign Minister, Environment Minister and Agriculture Minister; an MP since he was 27. He comes across as, and maybe even is, a paragon of judgement, experience and decency. Yet, the polls suggest that his run for the Élysêe next spring is going nowhere. He is currently flatlining in third place just for the centre-right Republican Party's nomination, let alone the presidency itself.
The sad truth is that Barnier's dazzling success with Brexit has not stopped his countrymen from regarding him as a mouldy old fig. It is not hard to see why. At one point in the Diary
he writes: 'Ultimately, beyond the unpleasant questions of separation, what interests Emmanuel Macron above all – and myself too – is the future relationship with the UK, but also the reform of Europe'. The problem may lie in part with the translation, but however often I read this sentence, I cannot work out which of the issues listed is Macron's – or Barnier's – priority. Inspiring it ain't.
Contrast the unsavoury example of Éric Zemmour. Zemmour, the Rush Limbaugh of French television, is a professional provocateur who spits venom at young immigrants, permissive ideas, and political correctness. He wants to ban 'unFrench' names like Mohammed (an unhappy prospect for one who is forever having to tell French officials: 'C'est K-E-I-T-H, comme Keith Richards').
It has won him a rabid cult following, and criminal convictions for inciting racial hatred and stirring up anti-Muslim loathing. Yet he has attained the cherished status of the rogue, partly because of the people he annoys, but mostly because his malice is tinged with mischief. His supporters ran a clever poster campaign that made it sound as if voters were pleading with him to stand for President. It worked. Some polls show him running second only to Emmanuel Macron.
For sure, there is ample evidence on both sides of the Atlantic that the more deranged ranks of the far-right would vote for Darth Vader, provided he promised to get tough on immigration. But Zemmour's advance is mostly at the expense of the other far-right favourite, the un-roguish Marine Le Pen, whose numbers are tanking. Besides, you need not visit the fringes to find French voters ready to forgive charismatic politicians their flaws.
As I write, former President Nicolas Sarkozy sits in Paris, electronically tagged under house arrest as recipient of two current jail sentences, busily managing his party's (which is also Barnier's) election planning by Zoom. One of his convictions is for gross over-spending at the election he lost to François Hollande. He mounted the classic rogue's defence that he had been far too busy running the country to bother with trifles of accountancy.
Sarkozy's fellow-Conservative predecessor, Jacques Chirac, also sustained a conviction, and a two-year suspended sentence, on a lively menu of charges, including diverting public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest. Yet, his death in 2019 unleashed a wave of popular affection for good old, beer-swilling, charcuterie-munching, flesh-pressing Jacques.
Rogues are not confined to right of centre. Earlier this month, handsome tributes followed the death of Bernard Tapie, a former minister in the socialist Mitterand administration, who was also a larger-than-life broadcaster, businessman, media proprietor, sports entrepreneur… and felon, who was convicted of tax fraud and match-fixing, and served prison time. Yet Emmanuel Macron was one of many to be heard eulogising Tapie's 'ambition, energy and enthusiasm'.
Mitterand himself enjoys a place in the rogue's pantheon, having run a secret second family for two decades. He owes the distinction to the contrast between his private misbehaviour and his obelisk dignity as President, leavened with a faint but impish smile. Neither quality seems enough in itself. His unlamented predecessor, Giscard D'Estaing, had icy dignity to spare, while owlish fellow socialist François Hollande punctuated his presidency by dumping two glamorous partners, including ex-presidential contender Ségolêne Royal, and puttering off on a moped to nocturnal assignations. Yet his dullness, and lack of achievement, means he is remembered not as a rogue but as a bore.
Is this electoral susceptibility to rogues a purely French trait? Certainly, it is not much associated with the Chancellery in Berlin. European voters have generally tried in the post-war era to pick serious people for the serious task of government, with the occasional Berlusconi serving only as the lapse that proves the rule. In Britain, the closest approximation was Harold Wilson, though he was a bodger rather than a rogue and his deviousness was largely expended on holding together a government of bigger beasts than himself. David Cameron's lofty insouciance doesn't really count.
It is only in the past half-decade that one can point to electorates outside France taking a punt on rogues. America has elected plenty of inadequate Presidents, but until Donald Trump it had not consciously leased the White House to a self-evident villain and chancer. Even Bill Clinton looked a virtuous option at first. But then came Trump in America, and Boris Johnson in Britain.
Does Johnson count as a rogue? One suspects that he would prefer it to the more common pejorative view of him as a mendacious buffoon. Certainly, his backstory suggests a personal moral code for which the adjective 'caddish' begs to be brought out of retirement. Yet, the French sense of a rogue also implies a certain political dexterity, a low cunning that wrests unlikely successes from the jaws of failure. With the exception of his 2019 General Election win, Johnson has succeeded at very little. Bumbling through on a wing and a prayer is not what the French mean by a rogue.
Nevertheless, it is within living memory that candidates who fall short of moral impeccability could forget high office: ask John Profumo or Gary Hart. That seems to be changing. Trump oozes sleaze from every pore, while estimates still vary as to the number of Johnson's progeny. Matt Hancock, though too bland to make it as a rogue, might have survived the grope had it not blown his own social distancing strictures. If voters really have stopped caring about personal peccadillos, it could yet prove the first step towards joining France in its sneaking admiration for the strolling vagabond.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster