Right’s new leader is no Le Pen Mk2 ...he can win
Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics
In choosing Laurent Wauquiez – so-called ‘bad boy of the right’ – to be their new president, Les Républicains will have had one major consideration.
It won’t have been to do with his politics, which have been characterised as being so far to the right of most of those in the conservative movement in France that he could easily team up with Marine Le Pen (an assertion he vigorously repudiates).
It won’t have been his relative youth (he is, at 42, just three years older than President Macron, and so his party can be seen to have skipped a generation in choosing him).
It will be his what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to politics. If he has been as straight with his clientele about himself as he has been about his ideology, then he is what his party needs.
The shock of having chosen, in the apparently blameless and competent François Fillon, a candidate for the 2017 presidential elections who turned out to have paid his wife out of public funds for doing little or nothing continues to resonate around the French centre-right. Never again, in their view, can the centre-right be unrepresented in the last round of a presidential contest, as it was last May.
Some of the adjectives routinely applied to M Wauquiez are rather stiff – ‘mad’, ‘dangerous’, ‘cruel’ and ‘divisive’ are favourites, many of them provoked as much by his reputation for ruthless ambition as by his political outlook (which, his enemies also say, lacks any conviction). However, the apparent transparency of M Wauquiez suggests, in that respect at least, that LR have found their man.
He has plenty of experience at a senior level: he served as Europe minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and is currently president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
He made an astonishing impact on his party even before being chosen: with 75% support [but with only a 42% vote rate] in the first round of voting in early December, there was no need to hold a second. Inevitably, such a show of confidence in him raises expectations enormously, and M Wauquiez’s main problem will be to show he is equal to them.
It may be almost four years before his party vies for presidential power again – and at this stage he must be the favourite to be its candidate – but his party resembles a rather fine Sèvres vase dropped from a great height on to a concrete floor.
He must now not just find the glue, but where each individual piece fits.
A number of LR voters defected to the Front National in the May contest, helping Mme Le Pen get a third of the vote.
M Wauquiez is considered so hard-line on social issues it is assumed he will win such people back. He will have more of a fight tempting back ex-LR members such as Edouard Philippe, M Macron’s prime minister, and the economy minister Bruno Le Maire, both of whom will, for the moment, be content to sit out the next few years in ministerial jobs with all the trimmings.
The one hope M Wauquiez can mobilise where they are concerned is that their new loyalties will prove shallow, and if the Macron project starts to falter they will look elsewhere.
However, the Wauquiez style of politics is not one to attract such people back from the court of an ardent centrist such as M Macron. Indeed, the resignation from LR of Xavier Bertrand, president of Hauts-de-France region, following M Wauquiez’s victory, claiming he no longer recognised the party he had joined, shows how fractured the conservative movement in France is. M Bertrand, too, is putting out signals that he will seek to contest the 2022 elections, and is already working to take a chunk of his old party with him.
As a result of M Wauquiez’s victory, talk of further splits on the right has become louder rather than quieter, as would normally be the case.
A new leader in a western political party is normally the signal for it to talk, however insincerely, about the need for unity, and to carry the fight to the enemy. The problem is that many old LR hands no longer know exactly who the enemy is.
For many, it isn’t M Macron – yet. Another fissure with which M Wauquiez has already had to cope is a group of nine of his MPs in the already shrunken grouping in the Assemblée Nationale forming their own party, Agir, and declaring their support for M Macron too.
French political party groupings are notoriously fluid, but this is becoming absurd. With La République En Marche apparently in rapid decline as a mass membership party, the Parti Socialiste in the crypt and the FN barely out of intensive care, the structure of political life now is more volatile than at any time in the 60-year history of the Fifth Republic.
M Wauquiez’s best hope is for M Macron’s attempt at an economic restructuring – a strategy that is already being diluted – to fail. Then, his claim that the right will stop being all things to all men but will, instead, promise to reduce the size of the state and, with it, taxation might have some appeal.
He might also be able to exploit M Macron’s passion for some sort of federal Europe, an idea with little traction in a France where many people feel they have had a rough deal from the EU.
What his opponents most hate, though, is his populism: the fact that, by an appeal to ‘ordinary people’ and by not being Mme Le Pen, he may just pick up votes in a way that his party has not seen since 2007.
He may be strong meat, and some of the adjectives may be true: but his election means that French politics has just become that little bit more entertaining.
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs