France’s conservatives torn over Macron’s ‘siren call’ before parliamentary polls

Supporters of French right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) arrive to attend a party meeting on June 8, 2016 in Saint-Andre-lez-Lille, northern France.
Supporters of French right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) arrive to attend a party meeting on June 8, 2016 in Saint-Andre-lez-Lille, northern France. © Philippe Huguen, AFP

France’s traditional conservative party Les Républicains (LR) was humiliated in last month’s presidential elections, squeezed between the biggest voting blocs on the centre right and far right. Now LR’s leading figures are rowing over the prospect of joining forces with Emmanuel Macron as the president is expected to maintain his majority in June’s parliamentary vote.

French legislative elections
French legislative elections © FRANCE 24

Until LR’s Valérie Pécresse launched her presidential campaign – destined to get 4.8 percent in the first round – it looked like the party could escape its identity crisis.

LR topped the polls in the 2021 regional elections, demonstrating formidable get-out-the-vote machinery across France’s provinces. More importantly, the centre ground of French politics had moved rightwards and the centrist Macron had shifted with it – yet France had not re-elected an incumbent in two decades, while Macron’s technocratic style vexed much of the electorate.

So for a while, Pécresse looked like the most potent threat to Macron. But her campaign crashed amid wooden Star Wars jokes and failure to recollect that Mali no longer had an ambassador in France. Macron romped to first-round victory in LR’s former heartlands – bourgeois-rich places like the beaux quartiers of western Paris and the Vendée region on the Atlantic Coast – as well as winning older age groups from the party.

That leaves LR in the same place it occupied for most of Macron’s first term – trapped between France’s two biggest electoral blocs.

LR’s on-the-ground presence throughout regional France counts for little on the national stage: “There’s a complete divorce between local politics and national politics,” noted Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University.

‘Lure of the centre’

LR’s luminaries agree on seeking solace in the party’s local strength, regardless of whether it is warranted. But they disagree strongly about where to steer their ship as water seeps in.

The official message is clear: After convening a “strategic council” on April 26, the party’s leader Christian Jacob said there is no way LR is joining forces with anyone.

“We are Les Républicains, an independent group,” he told news channel BFMTV. Jacob demanded that LR MPs sign a written commitment agreeing to this approach – although he emphasised that independence does not mean heedless opposition to Macron’s agenda.

Jacob and like-minded figures are “worried about the lure of the centre, the siren call of government, when there’s a continuation of the binds LR finds itself in with so much policy space taken up by Macron on one side and Le Pen on the other”, said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester.

After all, joining forces with Macron was an exemplary move for the first and most prominent LR politician to have done so: Édouard Philippe spent three years as Macron’s prime minister then went back to his former job running Le Havre as France’s most liked political figure.

Indeed, Jacob finds his authority limited as he tries to hold his MPs back from Macron’s siren call. Eighteen have already defected to the president. Several prominent MPs refused to sign Jacob’s text, including Damien Abad – LR leader in the National Assembly and a major figure on the party’s centrist wing, rumoured to be joining Macron’s cabinet soon.

Another MP, Sébastien Huyghe, argued that Jacob had no authority to impose it, saying the strategic council has “no statutory role” and so “it makes no sense to have a non-existent body vote on something!”

‘Committee for sucking up to Macron’

Abad and Huyghe are part of a faction edging towards a deal with Macron’s supporters ahead of the parliamentary elections on June 12 and 19. Nicholas Sarkozy backs this approach – and the ex-French president and LR grandee remains influential amongst the rank and file.

At a strategy meeting between the two presidential rounds, this group clashed with another camp endorsing Jacob’s approach of being adamantly opposed to a deal with Macron – a camp including the party’s ex-leader Laurient Wauquiez, the pre-eminent voice of its socially conservative wing.

The dispute has spilled out onto social media. Soon after Macron’s win, LR treasurer Daniel Fasquelle called for the party to offer its support to Macron to “bring France together in an ambitious project”, not to fall into line behind him but to “engage in dialogue”. LR Secretary-General Aurélien Pradié responded thus on Twitter: “If @DFasquelle has got a little bit of energy left, he should become treasurer of the committee for sucking up to Emmanuel Macron.”

For all Pradié’s cut-throat rhetoric, the forthcoming elections are expected to weaken his side of the debate: Analysts anticipate that the parliamentary polls will only amplify that “siren call of government”, because Macron is projected to get a majority and LR is forecast to lose a lot of seats.

The “most likely scenario” for the parliamentary elections is a “deal between [Macron’s party] La République En Marche [Republic on the Move] with its centrist allies and the most Macron-compatible components of Les Républicains”, said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University.

‘Union of the rights?’

Macron’s bloc is not the only lure for LR politicians. The narrowness of Pécresse’s primary victory over hardliner Éric Ciotti underlined LR’s finely balanced divide between its centre right and hard right.

Ciotti complained that Pécresse refused to countenance his idea for a French version of Guantanamo Bay – before announcing that he would back far-right ex-pundit Éric Zemmour if he faced Macron in the presidential run-off. Much more than Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader Marine Le Pen, Zemmour yearns to pull a large chunk of the traditional right into the far-right fold.

“A lot of people in LR are tempted by this idea of the union of the rights,” Paul Smith pointed out.

But past precedent shows the far right underperforming in the parliamentary polls. So for LR’s hard right, Le Pen and Zemmour are unlikely to possess anything close to the patronage Macron could offer the party’s centre-right.

And for the likes of Ciotti and Zemmour, there are mutual benefits in consorting without joining forces, Andrew Smith pointed out: “Ciotti is useful to Zemmour because he lends a veneer of respectability to his ideas by being a member of a storied party fraternising with him. The connection to Zemmour benefits Ciotti because in Ciotti’s constituency in Nice, Zemmour’s ideas are not unpopular. Moving towards an alliance would sever those benefits."

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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