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For France's conservative Les Républicains, damage control and sharpening knives

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | François Baroin, French right-wing Les Républicains (LR) party senator and head of the campaign committee of the right-wing and centre for France's legislative elections, at LR headquarters in Paris on June 11, 2017.

Faced with an extraordinary surge by Emmanuel Macron’s fledgling LREM in the first round of legislative elections, the conservative Les Républicains (LR) are sticking with the status quo before next Sunday’s run-off.


But the battle to come within the party, between a self-styled “constructive” faction and a conservative one, is already being prepared behind the scenes.

Above all, do or say nothing that could cost a single more seat. With projections forecasting 70 to 110 seats for Les Républicains after elections for the lower-house National Assembly wrap up on Sunday – down from 199 lawmakers in the last legislature -- LR wants to avoid adding the spectacle of internal division to the disaster of defeat.

Submerged by the La République en marche (LREM) tidal wave even in reputedly “safe” districts like conservative bastions within Paris and in the French capital’s affluent western suburbs, LR and the coalition it forms with the centrist UDI is in danger of seeing its seat count plummet by half on Sunday. So the debate over the party’s political line will wait -- until next week.

“We are walking a ridge road with two north faces,” LR’s François Baroin, charged with shepherding his party through these legislative elections, conceded on Monday, when 50-odd party executives from the political committee gathered to discuss the elections.

“The only priority between now and Sunday is to support our candidates, “said LR’s general secretary, Bernard Accoyer, a former speaker of the National Assembly and outgoing parliamentarian who was not running for re-election in this lower-house race. “Only after the second round will we take up fundamental subjects,” he said.

In that vein, Baroin travelled to Paris’s western suburbs, in a district of the Hauts-de-Seine, to support Constance Le Grip, a LR candidate facing an uphill battle in Sunday’s finale against a LREM opponent who scored 41.9 percent to her 21.2 percent. Former conservative prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, meanwhile, went to support Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former cabinet minister and the 2014 Paris mayoral race runner-up, who is in trouble ahead of her run-off duel with an LREM newcomer in the second district of Paris, an affluent patch of the French capital’s Left Bank that was seen as a “golden district”, an virtually unloseable safe seat, for LR only months ago.

During such excursions to tout LR candidates all this week, party officials will hammer home their key campaign messages, which remain unchanged from the first round: beyond “the danger” of seeing a “single party” in the National Assembly, the planned increase in the CSG social security contribution under Macron will inflict “a fiscal shock worse than [former Socialist president] François Hollande’s”, as Baroin repeats.

But while internal debates are being kicked down the road beyond the legislative elections, they are already on everyone’s minds. “In any case, this rebuilding is indispensable. We must not go back to the madness we have had in recent months and recent years,” former LR leader Jean-François Copé told reporters outside the committee meeting.

The key issue, and one that will have to be resolved quickly, is the attitude to adopt with Macron, the government of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe (an LR export himself) and LREM, particularly when it comes to voting confidence (or not) in the government after the prime minister’s general policy speech in early July.

Several well-known LR figures have already come out in favour of voting their confidence in the government. Two of those are Thierry Solère and Franck Riester, LR legislative candidates whom Macron’s party spared in their district races from having to face an LREM opponent. These “constructive ones”, as they call themselves, say the president must be given “the presumption of confidence”, in former prime minister Raffarin’s turn of phrase, and say they are ready to work with the government.

On the other hand, LR figures who take a harder, more conservative line have been fairly discreet for now, but they will bear their full weight after the legislative elections. They include heavyweights like Laurent Wauquiez, who did not attend the political committee meeting on Monday morning.

The rift between the latter set and the so-called constructive LR faction may well lead to a split and the establishment of two separate groups in the National Assembly. The “political earthquake” referenced by Accoyer would then be complete. Unless, that is, a middle road wins out, an in-between line that LR heavyweight Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern Hauts-de-France region, seems keen to personify. “A parliament member who joins up [with Macron’s LREM], no; a parliament member raring for a fight, no,” as Bertrand put it on BFM TV on Monday.

This article has been adapted from the original, in French.

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