French Center-Right Needs More Than New Leader

It needs a better strategy.

Laurent Wauquiez Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Laurent Wauquiez and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the conservative party leaders of France and Greece, attend a meeting in Brussels, October 17, 2018 (EPP)

France’s center-right Republicans will be looking for a new leader after Laurent Wauquiez stepped down in the wake of a disappointing European election result.

His party got just 8.5 percent support, placing fourth behind President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and the Greens.

Wauquiez had been at 8 to 10 percent support in polls for the next presidential election, which is due in 2022.

But the party needs more than a fresh face. It needs a better strategy.

Cozying up to the far right

Wauquiez imitated Austria’s Sebastian Kurz in moving his conservative party to the right on cultural issues. The hope was to win back voters from Le Pen’s far right. It ended up alienating moderates.

Readers of the Atlantic Sentinel knew this would happen. Austria is an altogether more conservative country and Kurz doesn’t have to compete with a party in the center. The Republicans do: Macron’s.

Wauquiez would never go as far as Le Pen. But he went too far for many center-right voters with his opposition to open borders in Europe, opposition to marriage equality and adoption by gay couples, and sympathy for Donald Trump. Those voters preferred Macron, despite his progressive social views.

Spain’s conservatives have made the same mistake. They lurched to the right on abortion, Catalan separatism and immigration in an attempt to outflank the far right. It only cost them supporters in the center, who voted for the liberal Citizens or even the center-left Socialists.

Take the fight to Macron

The Republicans can double down on nationalism-lite. Le Pen is happy to give them that fight. She knows that her party can only grow at the expense of the Christian right. That is why she has toned down the Euroskepticism and dialed up the talk of European values.

Or Republicans can take the fight to Macron. John Lichfield argues in Politico that the president, a former Socialist, is vulnerable.

  • His voter base has shifted from the center to the center-right, from the aspirational to the wealthy, from the young to the old.
  • Younger, metropolitan ex-Macron voters moved to the Greens. He lost 6 percentage points among 18- to 24 year-olds and 11 points among voters aged 25 to 34.
  • Macron’s is now the largest party in the wealthy western arrondissements of Paris and its tony suburbs. The poorer, younger, more bohemian eastern parts of Paris migrated massively to the center-left and the Greens.

Competing with Macron would require a Republicanism in the vein of Alain Juppé, who lost the center-right’s presidential primary in 2017. (I saw Juppé as the safer choice at the time, but, much like Republicans in the United States, France’s preferred a perceived purist to a strong general-election candidate.)

The trouble is that many of those Republicans have already defected to Macron. If Lichfield is right, Macron’s could become the new center-right party of France. And then what would be the point of the Republicans?