December 7, 2022 - 1:00pm

Blink and you would have missed the election for the presidency of the once formidable Gaullist centre-Right party Les Républicains (LR). As it finds itself caught between a Macronist rock and far-Right hard place, Les Républicains has missed the runoff of the two previous presidential elections.

Reeling from LR’s pitiful 4.9% in last April’s presidential poll, 91,000 registered party members had to choose between three candidates. Aurélien Pradie, a more centrist MP, lost in the first round with 22% of the vote. The choice is now between Eric Ciotti, a known hardliner on immigration, and Bruno Retailleau, a well-mannered conservative senator. Ciotti has a slight lead, eight points, going into the runoff this Sunday.

In the face of liberal accusations of an alleged shift to the far-Right, Ciotti and Retailleau have both presented themselves as conservative figureheads, with wafer-thin differences between them. Yet both candidates shied away from crossing ideological red lines, and never responded favourably to Éric Zemmour’s Italian-inspired dreams of a united Right. In practice, they are now courting the votes of the defeated Pradié, who represents LR’s more centrist vein. Equally important, they are sending signs to their elected officials, including LR’s 62 MPs and 234 senators, that, really, they are not going to propel the party into the jungle of far-Right politics.

Les Républicains, formed in 2015 from the reconstruction of the centre-Right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), has always been a strange beast. The joke was that the Gaullists would bring the electorate and the centrists would bring the elected officials. Those tensions still exist, with many MPs calling mezza voce for some form of coalition with Emmanuel Macron. With Macron’s government and parliamentary roster increasingly staffed by former LR politicians, both Ciotti and Retailleau fear rocking the boat too much.

In the short term, if they manage to placate these officials (some of whom will be secretly hoping for a casus belli so they can break ranks), LR will not fundamentally change its parliamentary tactics. Short of a major blunder by Macron, they will not be drawn to the outer fringes of either the Left or the Right in order to topple the government, nor will they join a coalition. The party will instead try to play kingmaker on some bills (pensions reform, for example) to claim some much-needed political credit.

The real danger for LR, therefore, is not a jerk to the Right but rather a drift into irrelevance. Squeezed out of the headlines by France’s World Cup win over Poland this week, the election hasn’t broken the news cycle. The party remains embattled from the Right by Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, while Macron remains a formidable, albeit slightly weakened, electoral alternative for conservative-minded voters. Even LR’s electoral base is disappearing: what’s left of the pauperised middle class joined Le Pen; conservative Catholics backed Zemmour. Not too long ago LR could have hoped to become a de facto home for the pension-aged electorate, but they have by now largely jumped ship in favour of Macron.

To be sure, LR will not die any time soon: it still holds a plurality in the Senate and has the largest contingent of mayors. Solace can be taken from the fate of the Communist Party. Once a formidable electoral powerhouse, now at best a secondary actor in national politics, the Communists remain a force at the municipal level, even outperforming Macron’s Renaissance party. LR’s local hold will allow it, like a dying star, to keep shining for some time.

With the electoral space on the Right increasingly congested, change will not come from tinkering the platform slightly in either political direction. At this point the Gaullist party can probably only hope for a miracle, a charismatic providential man. It’s not clear that de Gaulle’s uniform will fit either Ciotti or Retailleau.

François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.