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Caught between Macron and Le Pen, France’s conservatives face ‘catastrophe’

Jean-Pierre Clatot, AFP | Laurent Wauquiez, the outgoing leader of Les Républicains, has taken much of the blame for the party's abrupt decline.

The head of France’s conservative Les Républicains has resigned following a humiliating defeat in the May 26 European elections, with many questioning whether the party can survive the squeeze between Macron’s centre-right and Le Pen’s far-right.

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The recriminations against the leader of Les Républicains (LR), Laurent Wauquiez, started pouring in as soon as it emerged that the party mustered only 8.5 percent of the vote in the European elections – its worst ever result in a national poll, and a precipitous decline from the 20 percent its candidate François Fillon won in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections.

On the evening of May 26, Rachida Dati, a newly elected LR MEP and a former cabinet minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, took to TV to pronounce the party’s result a “catastrophe”. The next morning, Wauquiez’s main internal critic Valérie Pécresse, the moderate head of the Paris region, said she would step down if she were in his position. Soon, an array of LR politicians had lined up to explicitly demand his resignation.

Le Figaro, the newspaper of France’s traditional right, went even further, titling a video debate on its website: “Les Républicains: condemned to disappear?”

Finally bowing to the pressure, the embattled leader announced live on French television on Sunday that he would step down as party chief. “Victories are collective, defeats are solitary,” Wauquiez told TF1's flagship news programme. He added: “The right needs to rebuild and I do not intend to be an obstacle.”

‘Catastrophic’ result ‘down to Wauquiez’

The LR leader had come in for particular criticism for pivoting the party in a socially conservative direction since taking the helm in December 2017, when he vowed to make the party “truly right-wing”.

The epitome of this socially conservative reorientation was Wauquiez’s choice of LR head of list for the European elections: François Xavier-Bellamy, a Catholic who was involved in Sens Commun, a traditionalist group that emerged from the 2014 Manif Pour Tous anti-gay-marriage protests. He is also personally opposed to abortion, although he has said that “no one thinks it’s possible” for France to re-criminalise it.

During the campaign Xavier-Bellamy expressed a Eurosceptic stance akin to that of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN, or National Rally), saying that Wauquiez chose him as head of list in order to create “a new phase in the history of Europe”, in which “the EU is not an end in itself, but instead serves” its members’ “sovereignty”.

“The EU election result really is catastrophic for LR and in some ways I do think it’s down to Wauquiez and his adoption of a more socially conservative line,” Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester, told FRANCE 24. “A lot of the post-election criticism of Wauquiez is saying that people have difficulty distinguishing between LR and RN on the basis of policies – and that’s a big part of the problem.”

That’s while conservative Catholic voters are far from a dominant, homogenous group in France, noted Gérard Bernard, a political scientist at the Catholic Institute of the Vendée. “Practicing Catholics represent a little less than 15 percent of the electorate. Those who go to Mass every Sunday represent between 3 and 4 percent – almost nothing,” he told FRANCE 24.

“Around 80 percent of practicing Catholics are right-wing, but not all, which explains why those who usually vote for centre-right candidates have switched to Macron” from LR, Bernard continued.

Macron has parked his 'tanks on LR’s lawn’

Indeed – while RN, the victor of France’s European elections, remains a potent force on the far-right – Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche (LREM) party have “parked their tanks on LR’s lawn”, Smith pointed out.

From introducing labour law reforms in a neoliberal direction to tightening restrictions on asylum seekers, Macron has governed as a centre-right president, despite having campaigned on the centre-left. Perhaps most tellingly, Macron appointed Édouard Philippe – the former LR mayor of Le Havre – as his prime minister.

“The presence of ex-LR figures in key government economic posts, the rightward-leaning emphases of Macron’s policy agenda, and the susceptibility of large numbers of former LR voters to the gravitational pull of Macron have made LREM the natural party of the centre-right for now at least,” said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Aside from his policy positions, Macron has managed to exert this “gravitational pull” on centre-right and right-wing voters by adopting Charles de Gaulle’s conception of the French president as an “elected king”, Smith argued: “From the outset, when he was talking about himself as a ‘Jupiterian’ president, Macron has done everything he can – including driving down the Champs-Élysées in a Jeep, in homage to the then General de Gaulle’s entry into a liberated Paris in 1944 – to steal de Gaulle’s clothes.”

Macron’s particular permutation of Gaullism, that of “holding the line against an insurgent far right as a republican monarch”, “appeals to a lot of people, especially LR’s natural constituency”, Smith continued.

For their part, several LR figures have called on the party to start targeting Macron supporters instead of Le Pen’s, by tacking to the centre. “The strategy of trying to get voters back from RN has failed; instead we should appeal to people who have gone to Macron,” said Pierre-Henri Dumont, a member of the party’s leadership team. Meanwhile, LR Secretary-General Geoffroy Didier heaped execration on Wauquiez’s experiment by calling on the party to “go along with the times”.

Yet it may be that, in fleeing the Scylla of the far-right occupied by Le Pen, LR would just be throwing themselves at the Charybdis of a centre-right occupied by Macron. As Shields puts it, “Les Républicains finds itself caught between Macron’s LREM and Le Pen’s RN – and they’re the two political forces that have all the momentum.”

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