Open season on France's Laurent Wauquiez, hardliner eyeing top party job

Romain Lafabregue, AFP | Laurent Wauquiez, president of Auvergne-Rhones-Alpes regional council, speaks during a public meeting ahead of the upcoming French legislative election on May 23, 2017, in Jonage near Lyon, central-eastern France.

French conservative Laurent Wauquiez is eyeing his party's top job, months after its presidential hopes were dashed by scandal. But the hardliner, riled by inconvenient revelations himself this week, is finding he won’t get there unchallenged.


The monthly Lyon Capitale revealed Wednesday that Wauquiez -- the photogenic 42-year-old president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and a top candidate for the leadership of the embattledLes Républicains (LR) party -- had accumulated 13 years’ worth of pension credits from a job he had in fact only occupied for two months. “I have no problem being totally transparent about my situation,” Wauquiez responded.

The timing of the scoop is potentially embarrassing for the conservative up-and-comer, a former lawmaker who held a series of cabinet posts under former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Wauquiez, a fixture on the right with his premature grey  and trademark flashy red anoraks, is positioning himself to win LR’s top job in December when the party is due to cap off a difficult year on a new foot. Indeed, 2017 began with LR’s presidential candidate, François Fillon, seemingly a shoo-in for the Elysée Palace in May -- before the former prime minister’s bid fell apart under the weight of a so-called fake-jobs scandal.

Lyon Capitale reported Wednesday that Wauquiez, a Lyon native, extended his secondment from France’s Conseil d’Etat, or Council of State, for five more years. That body, among the most prestigious postings for a French civil servant, has the twin roles of advising France’s governments and serving as the country’s highest administrative jurisdiction, a final arbiter in legal cases involving any agency invested with public authority.

Wauquiez’s new five-year extension would come on top of the 13 years he has already been seconded from the body to pursue his political career. The secondment has a considerable advantage, Lyon Capital reports: it has allowed Wauquiez to draw 13 years’ worth of credits towards retirement for a post, Council of State “master of requests”, to which he was promoted back in 2004 and which he occupied for only two months.

In fact, in April 2001, the brilliant young graduate -- who had excelled in virtually every one of France’s most prestigious schools and finished first in his year at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration -- joined the Council of State as an auditor and later earned the master of requests promotion. But two months into that new role, Wauquiez went on leave to “commit to the electoral campaign in anticipation of a legislative by-election”. He would never again report for work at the Council of State.

That 2004 legislative by-election – which Wauquiez would win to become, at age 29, the youngest deputy in the lower-house National Assembly at the time – was a key early stepping stone in what would become a sparkling political run. The following years would see him named government spokesman in 2007, state secretary for employment in 2008, junior minister for European Affairs in 2010 and then minister for higher education and research in 2011.

A charismatic campaigner with a boyish grin, the politician shone, too, at the ballot box. In 2008, he was elected mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay, an office he held until he won the regional presidency early last year. One of his generations’ leading lights in Les Républicains, he became the party’s interim president when Sarkozy stepped down to mount his failed bid to become its presidential nominee a year ago.

To be clear, the secondment practice Wauquiez is making headlines for is not illegal. As he wrote on Facebook in response to the report, it is strictly in keeping with the law as concerns local elected officials on secondment; Wauquiez says he receives no salary from the Council of State and must make contributions to the state civil servant pension plan in order to benefit from it. But the political optics are evidently problematic.

In 2014, then-president François Hollande’s sizable senior public servant pension from another prestigious French body (the Cour des Comptes, the public auditing authority, where the Socialist began his career) raised eyebrows, too. That criticism was one reason Emmanuel Macron took the precaution of resigning from the public service in 2016 as he mounted his ultimately successful Elysée bid. Keen to clear up their own statuses, at least two of Wauquiez’s ambitious conservative colleagues have done the same: Bruno Le Maire, whom Macron has since poached from Les Républicains to serve as his finance minister, in 2012 and longtime Wauquiez rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet in 2015.

Could Wauquiez and his polemical perk fall victim to the 2013 Cahuzac Law, which requires ministers and lawmakers to use leaves, which do not count towards retirement, instead of secondments? In a word, no. Wauquiez is no longer a lawmaker or a member of cabinet and cannot be subject to the rule retroactively.

Wauquiez, then, is on the right side of the law. But his hometown magazine’s scoop could prove uncomfortable as he campaigns for the head of a conservative party he wants to pull further to the right. In the wake of the revelations, it was not lost on critics, on the left and right alike, that Wauquiez has come down hard in the past on welfare recipients who work the system, famously calling the benefits abuses “the cancer of French society”.

“I am no fool as concerns the timing of these sorts of attacks right in the middle of the oppositions rebuilding period,” Wauquiez wrote on his Facebook page a day after Lyon Capitale published its story.

Some detractors on social media were quick, too, to recall the scandals that ended Fillon’s presidential hopes. One meme saw Wauquiez’s face photoshopped onto an image of his wife, Penelope Fillon, who was at the heart of the scandal that squelched LR’s presidential aspirations. Socialist Party lawmaker Olivier Faure, for his part, tweeted in French: “Wauquiez is perpetuating the tradition of fake jobs #doasisaynotasido”. The conservative daily Le Figaro reported Thursday that Wauquiez is planning to file a defamation lawsuit against Faure for the remark.

But for Wauquiez himself -- on the brink of yet another coveted political stepping stone – it is the court of public opinion that will likely have the most important say.

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