How did it come to this? - The déroute of the French right

Back in December 2017, I wrote a blog entry about the election of Laurent Wauquiez as president of the French mainstream right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) . That entry - you can find it here - offers a longer view of the fate of the UMP/LR over the period 2007-2017. At the end of that piece I quoted a poll on the website of the principal right-wing daily newspaper in France, Le Figaro, whose readers reckoned, by a crushing 66% that Wauquiez would NOT be able to revive the party’s ailing fortunes. And how right they were. On Sunday 26 May, the LR list for the European elections, led by Wauquiez’s personally chosen candidate François-Xavier Bellamy, polled just 8.48% and limped in a very poor fourth behind the far-right Rassemblement National (23.3%), the Macron-sponsored list featuring LREM and its Modem ally (22.4%), and the Greens (13.5%). After a turbulent week within the party and with all sides calling for change, on Sunday 2 June, Wauquiez announced his resignation. In the meantime, the party will be managed by Jean Leonetti, mayor of Antibes, with fresh elections scheduled for the autumn.

Wauquiez was originally elected president with a massive majority - some 75% of the 100,000 party members who turned out to vote (of somewhere around 250,000) - against two candidates there to make up the numbers. None of the party heavyweights opted to take part and therein lay the problem. For while Wauquiez in many ways reflected the way the party membership had been drifting under the Hollande presidency, as witnessed by the massive endorsement of François Fillon as their candidate for the presidential election in 2017, what the party wants and what the electorate will tolerate are not the same thing.

Wauquiez was elected in the wake of the loss of a presidential election LR were supposed to win at a canter, but the election of Macron and his masterstroke of appointing the LR juppéiste Edouard Philippe as PM, followed by a poor showing in the general election, left LR between two stools. On the one side, the possibility of supporting the Macron-Philippe government, on the other finding a space between them and the far-right, itself in some disarray (albeit temporary) after Marine Le Pen’s poor show in the second round of the presidential election.

Wauquiez chose to rally the party around outright opposition (against the counsel of some more prominent party figures) whilst also trying to camp on Le Pen’s terrain, by promoting a form of identity politics, focusing on France’s culture as ‘European’ and Catholic which had catapulted Fillon to the candidature, on the back of support from the Marche pour Tous/Sens Commun movement, but which sits uneasily with the centre-right of French conservatism. Instead, the party’s moderates either quietly defected to Macron, became macroncompatible within Agir or retreated to their institutional roles (Gérard Larcher as speaker of the Senate, François Baroin as chair of the Association des Maires de France), as presidents of regional councils (Valérie Pécresse, Xavier Bertrand), or as mayors of large cities (for example Christian Estrosi in Nice).

In his brief time as party president, Wauquiez conducted himself badly. In an attempt to woo Catholic opinion, he presented himself as a long-time associate of and well-known to French national treasure Soeur Emmanuelle, claims that the foundation set up to preserve and protect her memory denied and asked him not to repeat. For more moderate voters, he set himself beyond the pale with his ambiguous response to the attack upon the prefecture of Le Puy-en-Velay by gilets jaunes protestors on 1 December 2018.  And despite denials on his part that he supported the gilets jaunes, there’s a picture of him with a yellow vest and he’s wearing it. In one of the few books about Wauquiez, Philippe Langenieux-Villard, who came to know him as a member of the regional council for Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, described his subject as an egocentric, authoritarian - Le Dangereux (Editions Philippe Rey 2018). And for LR, perhaps even fatal.

Figure 1 - Laurent Wauquiez, Man of the people - Le Puy-en-Velay, 24 November 2018

Figure 1 - Laurent Wauquiez, Man of the people - Le Puy-en-Velay, 24 November 2018

In short, Wauquiez tried to relaunch LR by stealing the populist invective of a Le Pen or a Mélenchon, whilst railing against the very elites of which he himself is the pure product. This also made his choice of tête de liste for the European elections rather odd. Born in 1985, François-Xavier Bellamy is a philosophy teacher and essayist, whose posts have mostly been in the private sector, which in the French context means Catholic high schools. He has been a member of the municipal council and assistant mayor for Versailles since 2008. And therein lay his appeal – to Catholic, bien-pensant France. The LR’s election brochure, pushed into every letter box in the country, shows a photograph of Bellamy and a group of French citizens, mostly white, outside a cathedral. A secular state, yes, but built on Catholic values…

Figure 2 - From the LR/CPNT/Les Centristes/Droite Moderne election brochure

Figure 2 - From the LR/CPNT/Les Centristes/Droite Moderne election brochure

If that was meant to appeal to the Marche pour Tous/Sens Commun brigade (pro-life, against same-sex marriage), the result from 26 May showed that there are not enough of them to shore up Les Républicains, whose electorate largely stayed at home. Figure 3 below, from the excellent Le Monde en cartes database, needs to be read with care. It shows that the LR vote didn’t pass the 20% threshold anywhere and only passed 15% in the Massif Central departments of Cantal and Haute-Loire (Wauquiez’s base). Even the Lozère, a staunchly conservative and Catholic department, failed to generate more than 15% and it was the same in the Alpes-Maritimes and up in the ouest-parisien. There, former Fillon voters clearly shifted to Macron, while elsewhere the RN mopped up.

Figure 3 - Les Républicains - strong in the Cantal and Haute-Loire…

Figure 3 - Les Républicains - strong in the Cantal and Haute-Loire…

Le Figaro’s map below (Figure 4), where the pink is the RN, LREM is orange and Les Républicains blue, shows the communes, the towns and villages where LR placed first, but they are just spots. Figure 5, from Le Monde, underlines that overall, all the departments were divided between LREM and the RN.

Figure 4 - Spot the blue

Figure 4 - Spot the blue

Figure 5 - The LREM/RN head-to-head - from   Le Monde en cartes

Figure 5 - The LREM/RN head-to-head - from Le Monde en cartes

The Bellamy-Wauquiez list had clearly been ‘squeezée’ between Macron and Le Pen, along with the other centre-right and right-wing lists. It would appear that France only has room for one right-wing identitarian party, and that is Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

Very quickly, the ground beneath Wauquiez’s feet began to crumble. Thus, while he himself called for an ‘estates general of the right’ others simply called for his head. Pécresse and Larcher led the movement, but within a few days, the mayors of a number of French cities had announced that they had handed back their party membership and were either rallying to Macron’s La République en Marche or would stand as independents in the 2020 municipal elections.

By the middle of the week, there was a reaction among LR Young Turks in the National Assembly, concerned that the party would be ‘récupéré’ by the ‘old’ leadership and talking about creating yet another macroncompatible group. Still others were concerned that the party was beginning to lose its identity as the party of low public spending and economic rigour. Then, someone suggested bringing back Sarkozy

But all were agreed that Wauquiez had to go. And on Sunday 2 June he obliged by announcing his resignation with immediate effect. Next morning, various LR figures were doing the rounds of the talk news programmes to express their admiration for Wauquiez, his courage, his dignity… and their sense of relief.

The problem that now confronts the party is how and whether it can recover in time for next year’s municipal elections? Is there a leader capable of rebuilding the party and reuniting the diverse branches of the famille? The party still has its élus at national, regional and local levels, but can they save it? Or are Les Républicains about to go the way of the Parti Socialiste – down the tubes? As I write these words - Tuesday 4 June - Gérard Larcher is convening a meeting of leaders of the right and centre to find a way forward.

Meanwhile, the vultures are circling. LREM, RN, but also, making her comeback, Marion Maréchal, whose supporters announced her return to politics on Monday 3 June, leading an Alliance pour la France to put her into the frame for the 2022 presidential election. Sometimes I wish I were making this up…

Once again, we’ll leave the final word (for now) with the readership of Le Figaro. Asked to answer the question ‘is there political space between LREM and the RN’ for Les Républicains, 55% of 55,000 respondents think not

Figure 6 - A fractured, crowded field - from centre to far-right - LREM, UDI, LR, Debout la France, RN

Figure 6 - A fractured, crowded field - from centre to far-right - LREM, UDI, LR, Debout la France, RN