La droite de retour...

The last time France’s principal right-wing party, then called the Union pour un movement populaire (UMP) held an election to find a new leader in the wake of losing the battle for the French presidency, the contest descended into a bitter and indecisive feud that left the party deeply scarred and the watching public bemused. Back then, François Fillon and Jean-François Copé tore huge chunks out of each other and although Copé emerged as the winner by a tiny margin, there was a very strong sense of dissatisfaction with the process.

That Copé was later forced to stand down, when allegations surfaced of false accounting during the Sarkozy presidential campaign of 2012 only heightened the sense of unease within the party. The return of Nicolas Sarkozy to the leadership did not really do very much to improve matters either and despite his success in taking back control and renaming the party Les Républicains, it was not enough to carry him through the party primary in November 2016, when he was eliminated in the first round. That defeat and Sarkozy’s subsequent retirement* from politics, left a vacancy at the top of LR. (*Although he still remains deeply influential.)

Now, as everyone knows, just over a year ago, LR thought they had a candidate en beton, guaranteed to win them back the Elysée. And everyone also knows how that turned out. Fillon finished third in the presidential election and LR performed poorly in the subsequent general election too. This in turn eliminated François Baroin, who headed the general election campaign, as a potential party leader. As I have written elsewhere, this left us over the summer with, we thought, three potential contestants: Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez. But by the autumn, Bertrand, LR president of the regional assembly of the Hauts de France, then Pécresse, his equivalent for the Ile-de-France, announced they would not be standing. Bertrand remained relatively tight-lipped about his reasons, but Pécresse reminded everyone of the impact of the Copé-Fillon contest on the party when she explained that she would not be drawn into a ‘guerre des chefs’.

The way was clear, then, for Wauquiez, president of the Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne region. Born in Lyon in 1975, he was the protégé of Jacques Barrot, a centrist politician in from the Auvergne department of Haute-Loire (Le Puy-en-Velay, if you know that neck of the woods) and in 2004 replaced his mentor as deputy when Barrot was appointed to the European Commission. Wauquiez rapidly made a name for himself as a centre-right chiraquien but also as a consummate opportunist who saw that the future lay in supporting Sarkozy’s bid for the Elysée. Alexandre Lemarié and Matthieu Goar, two of the most astute and knowledgeable commentators on the UMP/LR recount how one of Sarkozy’s garde rapprochée (inner circle) was taken aback at Wauquiez’s chutzpah in telling him (in 2005) that what the candidate needed was ‘un jeune chiraquien social’ and offered his services.

The reward was immediate. In 2007, the 32 year-old became the government’s official spokesman before moving on to a junior post at employment in 2008, then European affairs two years later, under foreign minister Alain Juppé. For the last year of the Sarkozy-Fillon administration, he was minister for higher education and research, which he took over from Pécresse. Within the UMP, however, his rise was less meteoric, particularly when Copé took over as leader in 2010. In response, Wauquiez set up a political club within the party, called La Droite sociale… with the emphasis on the ‘droite’. His approach to the social was to denounce a system that encouraged people to live off benefits and handouts – the famous assistanat from the French term assistance publique.

In the battle royal that followed for the UMP leadership in 2012, since Copé had blocked his path, Wauquiez was, naturally, part of Fillon’s team, and, had the former prime minister won, was earmarked for a post as party vice-president. Although that didn’t quite pan out the way anyone expected, Wauquiez got the post in any case, as the subsequent turmoil within the party over ther disputed results saw a new joint-leadership established. Always with an eye to the main chance, when Sarkozy won back the leadership of the party in November 2014, Wauquiez, who had been outspoken in his post facto criticism of the former president’s term in office, became general secretary and a central figure in Sarkozy’s campaign for the right-wing primary.

At the same time, Wauquiez had returned to his constituency in the Haute-Loire, where he was also mayor of Le Puy, built on his powerbase there and at the end of 2015 led the LR list to victory in the newly created Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. And unlike Christian Estrosi in neighbouring Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur or Bertrand up in Hauts-de-France, he didn’t need for the left to stand aside to see off the threat of the FN.

For Wauquiez, like many of Sarkozy’s followers, the result of the primary led to a rather odd period of denial, as if Fillon’s crushing defeat of Juppé was some sort of ersatz victory for their man. Fillon was at some pains to put the sarkozyste vanguard back in their place. Wauquiez maintained a discreet distance during the presidential campaign, unlike Baroin and others, for example, who made some mileage out of Fillon’s discomfiture as the revelations of Penelopegate came out and spread ever wider. There was, briefly, some suggestion, after Fillon’s elimination from the presidential contest on 23 April, that Wauquiez rather than Baroin might be the man to lead LR into the general election. If he aspired to that role, he burned his boats with LR moderates when he refused to endorse Fillon’s immediate call for right-wing voters to vote for Macron in the run-off. Instead Wauquiez called for a vote ‘against Le Pen but not for Macron’. It may be a subtle difference, but it matters…

The party’s relative failure in the general elections eliminated Baroin from the game and, as we have seen, neither Pécresse nor Bertrand would be drawn in either. Wauquiez became a shoo-in, with the challengers, Florence Portelli and Maël de Calan serving as little more than candidats de témoignage, the former for the fillonistes, the latter for Juppé’s supporters. The result of the leadership election was to leave both utterly defeated.

I have written in previous blog entries about the themes of Wauquiez’s campaign, so I shall not repeat this, but some of the issues will come up below.

The election, open to all fully paid-up members of LR (some 260,000) could have gone to two rounds, on 10 and 17 December. The ballot was largely, though not exclusively, electronic. In the end, it was all over on the evening of the 10th. Just shy of 100, 000 members voted and Wauquiez received 74.6% of the vote, Portelli 16.1 and Calan 9.25, so his legitimacy is without doubt. If the ‘turnout’ seems low, it was ahead of what party organisers had feared or hoped for. Most were looking at anywhere between 50,000 and 80,000. It is still way down on the 2012 election and also the 2014 figure that saw Sarkozy return, but it’s generally viewed as a success in the circumstances. The result is also sans appel, but Wauquiez will now need to show all his skills as a political chameleon if he is to rassembler all the strands of his party.

Already, a number of greater or lesser well-known figures have left the party, unwilling to accept the new leader’s identitarian, Eurosceptic, hard right shift. The best known of these is Xavier Bertrand. Just as Wauquiez was appearing as the new LR president on TF1 (aka LRTV) on Monday night’s news programme (11 December), so Bertrand used an invitation to rival channel France 2’s news to announce he was leaving the party. According to Bertrand, he took his decision between the first and second rounds of the presidential election but had waited until now so as not to affect the contest (although he has not been completely silent during the campaign). Wauquiez was fuming, or pretended to be. Bertrand has not ruled out standing for the presidency in 2022 and the last five years have shown us that being LR party leader doesn’t guarantee you the nomination – if there even is a primary in 2021. In the interview, Bertrand announced that he would not be joining any other party - neither La République en Marche nor the macroncompatible Agir – but was looking forward to spending more time with his region. Who says local politics isn’t important in France? (Rhetorical.)

So far, Pécresse, the other figure in the party with a national profile, has made no comment about her position. She and Wauquiez have agreed to meet. More on that when we have it…

In the meantime, Wauquiez has put together a young team of largely unknown names at the head of LR (average age 43, just four years older than Emmanuel Macron). It includes Virginie Calmels, a fomer TV executive and Juppé’s first assistant at Bordeaux city hall, as well as various former sarkozystes and also – and here’s a word I haven’t come across before despite the time I have given to studying the Senate – larcheristes, members of the LR in the upper house and/or close to the speaker, Gérard Larcher. An enigmatic figure, Larcher enjoys a reputation as a rassembleur who backed Fillon in 2016 less for his politics and more for his qualities as a statesman, only to be deeply disappointed by the Penelopegate affair. Above all, Wauquiez is keen to insist on the turning of a page, that a new generation is emerging on the right.  Quite where that leaves the likes of Larcher, or Eric Ciotti (Estrosi’s great rival in Alpes-Maritimes) or Nadine Morano, is not entirely clear and we won’t really know how he plans to set up the party until the New Year.

And, in tune with the Zeitgeist, Wauquiez says he wants to restructure the party… yet another one of a new type.

The main problem for Wauquiez is the matter of the droitisation of the party, a process that his critics see as more likely to alienate activists and voters than win them over. Valérie Pécresse has expressed her fears about the porosité of the dividing line between the LR and the FN under Wauquiez and that has not gone away. Wauquiez may think that by ‘republicanising’ a discourse of identity, he can steal voters from the far right, but this is 2017, not 2007. News from the FN suggests that there the pressure, since Florian Philippot’s departure, is for the party to return to the core themes of immigration and identity and worry less about economic and social policy.

The future of the EU will also be a major point of debate within LR. In 2014, Wauquiez, the former minister for EU affairs lest we forget, published a book entitled L’Europe: il faut tout changer (Odile Jacob). No-one would pretend the EU doesn’t need reform – Macron is the first to say so. But Europe has been, since the Maastricht referendum at least and before, a subject that creates deep divisions within the French right, between the Europhile centre-right and a more sceptical, souverainiste wing. Here again, the position in relation to the FN becomes difficult.

Now, this blog entry has gone on for long enough already, but there is one more consideration to bear in mind.

The next elections in France are the European elections in the spring of 2019. Already these are being touted as an election that will allow the French public to judge the first phase of the Macron presidency. Over the last few weeks, Macron and his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, have met with party leaders to discuss a return the electoral system used before 2004 – a straight nationwide ballot using single-round PR. In 2003, in a bid to restrict the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen and also the left, the right-wing administration of PM Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his interior minister Sarkozy, broke the election up into a series of ‘super-regions’. Going back to a single, national list system will put the parties’ central administrations back in control and undermine those who, like the LR, have strong local organisations and local councillors who are able to use their influence on the ground. Thus, while Mélenchon and Le Pen are favourable to a return to the ‘national’ ballot, because they have really very few local élus, LR sees this as weakening its position.

Wauquiez’s election slogan was ‘La droite de retour’ – the right is back. He is trying to establish himself as the real leader of the opposition to Macron, but that space is at one and the same time, paradoxically, crowded and vacant: Mélenchon and Le Pen are struggling to look credible but they can shout quite loudly. Wauquiez's own credibility will rely on his ability to reshape the party, consolidate his leadership through the electorally fallow year of 2018 and to find a programme for the EU elections that will hold LR together through an electoral process. According to an online poll for the electornic version of Le Figaro, the main right-wing newspaper in France, 66% of readers don't think he can relancer le parti...