France: The right regroups
The election of Laurent Wauquiez as leader at the weekend was an encouraging sign for a traumatised organisation
Laurent Wauquiez (42) succeeded Nicolas Sarkozy as leader of the right-wing Les Républicains after a campaign in which he positioned himself on a Catholic, identity-based platform. Photograph: Robert Pratta/Reuters
It’s difficult for a party to lose an internal leadership election, but Les Républicains, France’s centre-right opposition bloc, has form in such things. The enmities that sprang from the contest between François Fillon and Jean-François Copé in 2012 left the party scarred for years and played a part in the implosion that helped bring Emmanuel Macron to power.
By the party’s recent standards, then, the election of Laurent Wauquiez as leader at the weekend was an encouraging sign for a traumatised organisation. The 42-year-old, a European affairs minister during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, won 75 per cent of the vote against two relatively little-known rivals, giving him a strong mandate to impose his will on a fractured party.
With the Socialist Party still reeling from the collapse in its vote, the far-right Front National weakened by internal divisions and the radical left bloc led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon struggling to maintain the momentum it generated in the first half of the year, Wauquiez is well placed to impose himself as figurehead of the opposition. Like Macron, Wauquiez is a polished technocrat with an elite education and strong media skills. Although he served under Sarkozy, he has managed not to be tarred by association, and his comparatively low public profile will allow him to reinvent himself for new circumstances. He is just three years older than Macron, allowing his party to frame his rise as proof of a generational shift.
In his leadership campaign, Wauquiez positioned himself on a Catholic, identity-based platform. He has a keen eye for Macron’s weak points, portraying him as the president of urban France, of the young, of those who are already doing well. Wauquiez’s claim to be the voice of rural France is implausible – he was born into a family of industrialists in Lyon and graduated from the École Nationale d’Administration – but Macron’s recent focus on pensioners and regional development suggests he recognises his vulnerability.
Wauquiez has time on his hands – the next presidential election is not until 2022 – but his task is immense. He faces a dynamic president whose majority gives him vast power. The first challenge is to unite a divided party, torn between those who, like him, believe it must take the fight to the far-right and a centrist grouping for which right-wing identity politics is anathema. Macron has cannibalised that moderate wing, and is earning plaudits from segments of its voter base.
Wauquiez’s emphasis on values may allow him to define himself against Macron, but he would be well advised to recall a lesson learned by his predecessor in the role. Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007 by convincing Front National voters that he represented their views. Five years later, Sarkozy was denied a second term partly because many of those voters opted to abandon his far-right mimicry in favour of the real thing.