French centre-right faces identity crisis

In two rounds of voting in France’s local elections, separated by three months because of the coronavirus pandemic, the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) won more than half of the country’s small towns.

Speaking on an election night television panel on Sunday, the party’s president, Christian Jacob, declared: “We are once again victorious, after failures in the presidential, legislative and European elections.”

At the same time, however, the LR, successor to the Gaullist parties which once dominated postwar French politics, lost to greens and leftwing alliances in big cities it had held for decades, including Marseille and Bordeaux. It also failed to win back Paris from the Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo. Party officials admit that it needs to choose the right leader and clarify its policies to mount a credible challenge to Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election in 2022.

According to Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice, the LR faces a “triple crisis”: a leadership crisis since former French president Nicolas Sarkozy resigned as party chief four years ago; an ideological crisis “because they don’t really know what they think” and are struggling to find political space between Marine Le Pen on the far-right and Mr Macron in the centre; and a financial crisis that followed resounding defeats in the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Damien Abad, who leads the party in the National Assembly, acknowledged that it faces “a long road” ahead. “There needs to be a real revolution, a peaceful revolution, of the right,” he said.

Charts showing the future of France’s centre-right Les Républicains

It was three years ago that François Fillon, the centre-right candidate who had been favourite to win, became the first Gaullist in the fifth republic to fail to make the second round of the presidential election when he was embroiled in a scandal over the fictitious employment of his wife Penelope as a parliamentary assistant. The couple were convicted and sentenced to jail for that this week, but have appealed. 

Mr Fillon’s failure to progress left the field open to Mr Macron, the ultimate winner, to face off against Ms Le Pen, and was followed by an overwhelming victory for Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party in the National Assembly election a month later. Last year, LR scored its worst result in a European election, with just under 8.5 per cent of the French vote. 

Mr Jacob has said he has “no ambition” to campaign for the French presidency in 2022. The three most likely centre-right candidates remaining are therefore Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern region of Hauts-de-France, followed by Valérie Pécresse, who heads the Ile-de-France region around Paris, and François Baroin, mayor of Troyes and leader of the association grouping the country’s 35,000 mayors

Xavier Bertrand could challenge Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency in 2022 © Leo Novel/FT

It is a sign of LR’s current weakness as an institution that both Mr Bertrand and Ms Pécresse have thought it best to leave the party and keep their political distance from its elderly conservative image, while assuming they can receive its backing when it comes to a presidential contest. 

“Xavier Bertrand has the best profile,” said Chloé Morin, an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank, “because he’s a radically different personality from Macron. Politically he’s on the right and talks to ordinary people. He is above all humble where Macron is arrogant, and gives the impression of having territorial roots while Macron gives the impression of belonging to the elite.”

That mattered, said Ms Morin, because recent French history suggested that “the president who gets elected tends to have the opposite personality of the predecessor”.

The key problem for any LR candidate, however, remains the difficulty of distinguishing their policies from those of Mr Macron. He started his presidency in the liberal centre but has steadily alienated many of the Socialists, environmentalists and other moderate leftists who originally supported him.

“Emmanuel Macron has tried to capture the electorate of the right,” says the LR’s Mr Abad. Mr Macron has resisted tax rises, favoured business-friendly policies that encourage investment, cut unemployment by increasing the flexibility of the labour market and tried to reform the costly and inequitable pension system. Until the pandemic led to a blowout of the budget, he was planning to cut public sector deficits and debt. 

Like the LR, Mr Macron has also talked of the need for pragmatic environmentalism that does not damage economic growth, and has even moved to the right on the vexed issue of national identity and the need to control immigration

Political analysts and the politicians themselves say that does not leave much room for a future centre-right leader to make a mark, except by standing for law and order after months of sometimes violent clashes between police and anti-government gilets jaunes protesters, and violent clashes this month in Dijon involving Chechen gangs.

Perhaps the best advertisement for Les Républicains is their continued success at local and regional level. 

Mr Abad said one job of a future centre-right presidential candidate, who is expected to emerge in the autumn, would be to promote national unity and deal with “territorial fracture” — the damaging division between metropolitan elites and small-town France that fuelled the gilets jaunes protests. “There’s a lot of basic work to do,” he said. 

As for the next election, analysts said the LR would attack Mr Macron’s personality and criticise the record of his five years in office, which is certain to be tarnished by a deep recession and rising unemployment as a result of the pandemic. 

“What they bet is that politically Macron is going to collapse, so they will be facing the left and the greens as the party of conservatism,” said Mr Martigny. “But nothing is for sure. They can’t count on the fact that Macron is dead yet, because he’s not.”