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Laurent Wauquiez: The hardliner leading France's Les Republicains farther right

Jacques Demarthon, AFP | French right-wing Les Republicains party's newly elected president, Laurent Wauquiez, reacts after the results are announced on December 10 at Le Tripot Régnier bar in Paris.

After a career that began as a centrist, Laurent Wauquiez has moved increasingly to the right. Elected president of the conservative Les Republicains party on Sunday, he will now have to reach past his base to establish an effective opposition.

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Wauquiez won the presidency of Les Republicains in party elections on December 10, and yet the French know little about him. A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure and the ENA (École nationale d'administration), who was elected to France’s parliament while still under 30, he does not exhibit the flashy charisma of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, nor does he have the friendliness of a Jacques Chirac. Yet there's one thing that does mark him as following in his predecessors' footsteps: His desire for power is apparent.

If at 42 years old Wauquiez dreams of himself as President Emmanuel Macron’s main challenger, he struggles to embody it. No longer an “ambitious young wolf”, this was a man who took on several roles during Sarkozy’s presidency – as secretary of state for employment and as government spokesman, then minister of European affairs and of higher education. He vanquished the left in 2008 in Puy-en-Velay’s municipal council elections and was re-elected to the National Assembly in 2012 before becoming head of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in 2015. But Wauquiez's political ascent was abruptly halted by Macron’s meteoric rise and ascent to the presidency.

Wauquiez has not held back in attacking the president in recent weeks. He has described the former economy minister as a “capricious child” and an “arrogant adult” who is consumed by “a single project: himself”, as well as someone “haunted by a hatred of the provinces”. The criticisms were a little too provocative not to have been part of a wider strategy: Wauquiez wants to push the main opposition Les Republicains further to the right.

Wauquiez has now claimed the right to cause controversy and to be “truly right wing”. This has undoubtedly irritated the moderates in his party. In the early 2000s, there was nothing to suggest that this man would soon come to embody this particular brand of right-wing conservatism.

Once mentor, now opponent

Wauquiez took his first steps in politics under the tutelage of centrist Jacques Barrot. Barrot, a Europhile and Christian Democrat, left his Haute-Loire constituency in 2004. In the campaign to succeed him, Wauquiez announced on France 3: “I will remain faithful to the values that have allowed us, with Jacques Barrot, to move forward.”

Wauquiez now firmly rejects those centrist beginnings. In an interview with monthly magazine Causeur on December 7 he declared, “In reality, I was never a centrist, but I succeeded a centrist in Jacques Barrot. As a young député (MP) in the National Assembly, I repeated what the media expected of me.” In the same interview, Wauquiez described his turn towards the right as a “progressive loosening of shackles”.

The first glimpse of a truly right-wing Wauquiez could be seen in 2011. While still minister for European affairs, he referred to welfare dependency as a “cancer on French society” and advocated the introduction of work requirements for those receiving government benefits. In 2013, he opposed the introduction of gay marriage. In 2014 he came out as a Eurosceptic in his book, “Europe, everything must change,” in which he called for more protectionism. Former mentor Barrot publicly disavowed the book, deeming it to be “inspired by today’s brand of populism”. Ex-president Chirac wrote of the book in the French daily Les Échos: “Here there are all the ingredients to send us back to the last century, with a protectionism that has shown its limits by stoking the fear of the other.”

By regional elections in 2015, “Immigration, that’s enough” and “Brussels, that’s enough” were the slogans that adorned Wauquiez's campaign leaflets.

During the last stages of his campaign for Les Republicains' presidency, Wauquiez declared: “Immigration must be reduced to a strict minimum.” The remark was decidedly too right wing for the Union of Democrats and Independents, who, even before the results were declared, had already distanced themselves.

Now as the elected head of his party, Wauquiez will have five years to prepare himself for a new challenge: France's 2022 presidential elections and another shot at taking on Macron.

This article was originally published in French.

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