On December 10, the card-carrying members of France’s Parti Républicain elected Laurent Wauquiez as their new leader. But the party he hopes to shape into a vehicle for recapturing the French presidency is but a pale shadow of the political machine built by Jacques Chirac and transformed by Nicolas Sarkozy. How did the party that dominated French politics from 1995 to 2012 end up where it is today?
One reason for the Republicans’ dilemma is that the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, has occupied political territory that the right once claimed as its own. As prime minister he chose a Republican, Édouard Philippe, and two other Republicans, Bruno Lemaire and Gérald Darmanin, were tapped to occupy the top posts at the finance and budget ministries, the key positions in domestic policymaking. In his presidential run Macron eagerly wooed center-right voters left standing at the altar when their preferred candidate, Alain Juppé, was defeated in the primary by the much more right-wing François Fillon, who then promptly succumbed to scandal.
In the legislative elections that followed, the Republican contingent in the National Assembly was pared back from 199 deputies to 100, nearly half of whom were elected for the first time. The party chose to expel not only its Macron-compatible ministers but also a group dubbed Les Constructifs for their decision to avoid a frontal confrontation with the new president and engage instead in “constructive cooperation.”
With the center thus all but ceded to Macron, there is no place for the Republicans to expand their electoral base except on the extreme right, where they have steadily lost ground over the past five years to the Front National. But Marine Le Pen’s disappointing performance in the presidential race has left her party in disarray.
Wauquiez, the new Republican leader, has long coveted the hard right vote. He is not the first Republican leader to do so. Both Chirac and Sarkozy had enthusiastically dog-whistled to far-right voters over the years. Although Wauquiez is thus following a well-worn path, there are signs that he may push farther than either of his predecessors. He alludes, for example, to the “great replacement” theory proposed by the writer Renaud Camus, according to which high birth rates among immigrant groups will lead eventually to the demise of white civilization. This theme, picked up by white supremacist groups in the United States, could be heard in the chants of alt-right protesters in Charlottesville (“You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”). Wauquiez is thus positioning the Republicans to become the French alt-right.
Who, then, is Laurent Wauquiez? He is hardly your typical national-populist candidate. Having graduated first in his class from the ultra-prestigious École Nationale d’Administration (of which President Macron is also a graduate), he has impeccable elitist credentials. Indeed, he is also a graduate of the even more elitist École Normale Supérieure, to which Macron twice failed to gain admission. Yet for all his high-flying educational credentials, Wauquiez’s speeches are not devoid of frequent grammatical flaws, which detractors say he scripts in advance in order to make himself sound more like a man of the people. One centrist senator said that when he listens to Wauquiez, he “has the impression of listening to Philippot in stereo,” referring to Florian Philippot, who served as vice president of the Front National until he was made the scapegoat for Marine Le Pen’s disastrous presidential campaign and ousted from the party.
At 42, Wauquiez is young for a French party leader, though not as young as the president. He has nevertheless been accused of dying his hair white in order to appear older (retirees are a core Republican constituency). To bring himself closer to the masses he also sports a red parka and scuffed old shoes when visiting rural areas of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of which he is governor. And he hired a vocal coach, not in order to lose his distinctive regional accent but to regain it. Since the election he has consistently sought to portray Macron as a “cosmopolitan Parisian” out of touch with the “real France,” and the regional accent apparently helps.
Although Wauquiez served for a time as minister of European affairs under Sarkozy, he has since found it expedient to appeal to the far right by denouncing EU encroachments on French sovereignty. He has called “the idle poor” a “cancer on society” and urged that every welfare recipient be required to perform five hours a work of public service. He was outspoken in his attacks on Christine Taubira, the former justice minister responsible for the legalization of same-sex marriage. And immigration, he says, must be reduced “to an absolute minimum.”
What are Wauquiez’s chances of success? Although it is tempting to think that his opportunistic populism is so transparent a sham that it will not deceive anyone, recent events have shown that it is dangerous to assume that voters will inevitably reject pandering, no matter how shameless. Macron, for one, is not neglecting Wauquiez’s potential strength. “The president sees in Wauquiez qualities he himself possesses,” a presidential staffer told Le Monde. “That is why he thinks it would be the greatest of errors to underestimate him.”
Like Macron, Wauquiez has carefully calculated a strategy that might win him the top job. And like Macron’s strategy, Wauquiez’s is both shrewdly conceived and fraught with risk. Ultimate success depends primarily on further disintegration of the Front National. Despite Wauquiez’s repeated professions that under his leadership the right will not be afraid to show its true colors, he continues to say that, like Chirac and Sarkozy before him, he will reject any formal electoral agreements with the FN.
It is quite possible, however, that the FN will break up as the Republicans have done. One can imagine, for example, a faction of the party following not Marine Le Pen but her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who, unlike her aunt, is a practicing Catholic and opposes gay marriage. Wauquiez might then seize an opportunity to forge an alliance with Frontist defectors who share his traditionalist position on cultural questions as well as his tough stances on welfare and immigration.
In short, Macron’s consolidation of a vast party of the center has completely transformed the French political landscape. The first electoral test of the new constellation of forces will come in the 2019 European parliamentary elections. Traditionally, European elections have been viewed as referenda on the government in power, offering voters an opportunity to vent their discontents. If Macron’s ambitious plans for EU reform go nowhere, a substantial protest vote could serve as a launching pad for a Wauquiez presidential run in 2022. This is clearly his goal. The party of which he has just taken control is merely a vehicle. How things evolve from here will depend on how cleverly he avails himself of this opportunity.