It’s not easy being the leader of the Republicans in France at the moment, and Laurent Wauquiez doesn’t help himself.
Once the youngest MP in the French National Assembly, elected in 2004 at the age of 29, the 43-year old has now taken on an arduous task: bring his party back from the brink. Les Republicains, the formerly mainstream centre-right party couldn’t even make it to the second round of the French presidential elections last year.
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In fairness, the party was hit by a stroke of bad luck. For a start, they didn’t pick the obvious candidate for the job; instead of going for the centre-right, crowd-pleasing Alain Juppé, they went for the socially conservative and fiscally Thatcherite François Fillon.
His policies were hardly a hit with the electorate to start with, but things went from bad to worse when the scandals started to hit – the “fake” jobs he’d given relatives, dodgy financial dealings – and he refused to stand down.
This led to a bruising defeat. There could have been a reasonably obvious path back to decent polling levels, had it not been for the famous victory of Emmanuel Macron. En Marche took eye-catching policies from the centre-left and the centre-right, and managed to suffocate both legacy parties, who are also suffering from the pincer movement of strong poll ratings for the far-left and far-right parties.
Enter Wauquiez, who was elected leader in December, and didn’t have to put up much of a fight. His platform was straightforward, and unsurprisingly popular with the party’s grassroots: on the right of the Republicans, he campaigned for a right-wing that really is right-wing, and on themes linked to immigration, identity and the threat of islamism in France.
Faced with other candidates who weren’t anywhere near as high-profile as him, he ended up winning with nearly 75% of the vote, but his mission has had mixed results so far. Still, when he came to London earlier this year to try to galvanise some expat support, nearly a hundred people turned up to hear him speak.
With grey hair and a blue suit, the man who was former Europe and higher education minister under Sarkozy doesn’t exactly stand out among his peers. He isn’t blessed with charisma, but his tendency to favour plain speaking is refreshing, especially in French politics. And he didn’t balk from addressing the problem as he saw it right from the off: “Do we have a president who does what the Right would do if it were in power?”
By way of answering his own question, he trotted out all those Macron policies the Right could get behind, including railway reforms: “It was a brave thing to do…I fought for our MPs to vote for the bill”; labour laws reform: “It is going in a direction that is so far positive, which is why I decided to back the government on this”; education: “A minister I like and who isn’t scared to talk about excellence and success”; and business: “we have a rhetoric we can call pro-business, which I see as a positive”.
The obvious conclusion to draw from a solidly right-wing French politician openly agreeing with a vast part of the En Marche platform is that said platform might be more right than centre after all.
Presumably Wauqiez did it in order to head off any criticism about how how much oxygen Macron has deprived his party of, but it had the opposite effect. By elucidating the long list of similar policies, he simply drew attention to the fact that En Marche is solidly centre-right, and the Republicans are in big trouble.
It’s the conclusion French people have arrived at as well. According to a recent poll commissioned by Le Monde, on a scale where 0 is “very left-wing” and 10 is “very right-wing”, Macron is a 6,7. Meanwhile, a poll in Le Figaro showed that 53% of Republican supporters are “satisfied” with the president so far.
This is the scale of the problem facing the RP. So, how can Laurent Wauquiez reclaim his constituency from Emmanuel Macron?
Perhaps the first point of difference is over public spending. As Wauquiz pointed out to the room in Kensington, “On economics, we remain on the same trajectory we were in under Hollande. It’s unsurprising since Macron was the one in charge of Hollande’s economic programme for five years. So why should anything change?”
Wauquiez knew the figures: public spending now represents 56% of GDP, there are 88 public sector workers per 1,000 people, public spending rose by 8% in 2017, and so on. His point is that En Marche remains a left-of-centre government when it comes to spending, when what France truly needs is for someone to slash public spending then lower taxes, especially for the middle class.
The trouble is, Macron is seen by voters as fiscally responsible, and elections in France have rarely been won and lost over the size of public debt.
Which leaves the Republicans with one other trump card, the populist one, and the one which has got Marine Le Pen and her party to where they are today. Wauquiez flourished it with enthusiasm, and his audience lapped it up. “Our country is doing badly”, he said, “and is getting worse at a worrying pace. We keep telling ourselves that we’re the country of laicite; that’s untrue: we’re now the country of ultra-communitarianism.”
He warned that though France saw itself “as the extraordinary nation of Victor Hugo, open to people who want to come to us, and love Moliere and La Fontaine, and who come because they carry France in their hearts”, the country lets far too many people in. And so France is “crumbling”, neighbourhoods “gangrene” and no-go zones keep popping up around the country. Since she is failing to integrate immigrants, France must simply reduce the number of people coming in drastically.
Wauquiez was firmly in his comfort zone: not only was immigration one of his main policy topics when he ran for leader, he has also rarely shied away from controversies which could win him votes from the far right.
He was fiercely opposed to gay marriage in 2013, and has often used “laicite” as a cover to make France a less hospitable country to those adhering to non-Christian religions, giving, for example, his support to schools cutting replacement meals from their canteens when pork is on the menu. These stances all comforted those Republicans members who, like any party members when their political home has taken a mighty beating, tend to favour those standing on an unapologetically partisan platform.
The trouble is, this is all Le Pen ground, and the National Front is still polling way higher than LR. Their voters often come from communities which feel that they have been let down by the major parties time and time again, so bringing them back into the fold cannot be done so easily.
“Lower taxes and fewer immigrants” is also not the most thorough policy platform to work from. Far from offering a new vision for a country in crisis, which Macron did, it feels like a manifesto with half its pages missing.
Consumed with factional infighting since Fillon’s defeat in 2017 – or, to an extent, Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012 – with many key figures deserting for En Marche, what’s left of the party cannot come up with a coherent idea of what it wants France to be, nor how it can be the party to make that change happen.
Still, for what he lacks in concrete plans, Wauquiez more than makes up for in colourful rhetoric.
“I don’t want us to find ourselves in four years, standing on the ruins of the politics of Macron, and with Melenchon standing against Le Pen”, he said. “It is what Macron wants – everything he does is to eliminate everything between him and the extremes.”
“But there is still a small island resisting, which must make its voice heard. It is a long path I’m offering you; today, you’re in the situation of the fishermen on the island of Sein, who followed the General de Gaulle when everyone had betrayed him.”
Those fishermen, just over a hundred of them, sailed to England to join the resistance in 1940 as France surrendered to the Nazis. Eighty years later, the hundred people or so in that room in Kensington could have objected to their leader comparing a centrist president to Adolf Hitler, but didn’t; then again, the anecdote was niche.
“I don’t do politics for the polls, what I want is to defend a vision,” Wauquiez concluded, with the conviction of a man currently polling at 8%.
But how does a traditional right-wing party make itself relevant again when the centre-right is in power and the far-right is mainstream? It’s not clear Wauquiez is the answer to that question. After the earthquake which destroyed the French political landscape last year, after voters made it clear that the traditional parties no longer have the answers, then surely there should have been some significant soul searching, rather than a leaping on to the platform Sarkozy ran on all those years ago, minus the talent on the frontbench.
What the Republicans need right now isn’t simply someone to lead them, but a Kinnock or Howard figure who is ready to fight thanklessly to drag them out of the wilderness. French politics may have become wildly unpredictable, but we can be certain that Laurent Wauquiez is not that person.