Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A new leader for the right

The new leader of France’s mainstream right will have major problems trying to convince the country’s popular classes that he can be their candidate, writes Tewfick Aclimandos


ctivists from the French Republicans Party have elected a new leader, Laurent Wauquiez, with a crushing majority. The turnout was stronger, or less weak, than expected. 

True, the other heavyweights in the party did not run for the leadership. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister and presidential candidate François Fillon, along with prominent former ministers Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, declined to run for different reasons. 

The first was routed in last year’s presidential primaries, and the second was the man responsible for the right’s defeat in last year’s French presidential elections. He also did not resign when he was tarnished by scandals. Despite that and a too radical programme for French taste, he secured an honourable 20 per cent of the vote in the presidential elections, though this was not enough to reach the second round. 

Pécresse and Bertrand, two moderate figures, probably felt that the mood among party activists did not give them a chance. After the election of the new leader, Bertrand left the party. Pécresse stayed, but she has stressed her differences with Wauquiez.  

Fillon now seems to belong to the past. The Republicans face a very tough challenge today since a significant part of their electorate has been seduced by French President Emmanuel Macron and likes his economic policies. Macron’s campaign in the elections destroyed the left, and the right destroyed itself. His policies in office are a formidable challenge for the right as he is conducting the liberal-minded reforms it always promised to carry out but never managed to do so. 

Of course, the right can criticise Macron on some politically relevant technicalities, but the fact remains that Macron’s prime minister and the team handling the economy are former right-wingers who are implementing right-wing policies. Moreover, his Education Ministry, one of the most pleasant surprises of the administration, is very much liked by the conservative electorate. 

A look at the French electoral map enables us to understand Macron’s priorities: centrists from both camps (right and left) support him, and this seems to be a lasting feature of his government. The extreme left is alive and kicking in France, but it is unlikely to become a credible alternative to the government. The traditional left is in bad shape. The only threat could be the Republicans, so Macron has done his utmost to weaken them. He has carefully avoided post-modern stances, has paid a lot of attention to security issues, and has tried to divide the right.

Wauquiez, France’s new right-wing party leader, seems to share Macron’s analysis and to think his reforms are likely to succeed. Therefore, he has decided to surf on the French identity crisis and on one of the deep divisions in French society that opposes the cities which have benefited from globalisation and are siding with Macron and the country’s small towns and countryside which are suffering. Wauquiez has opted for a Eurosceptic discourse and has tried to address the grievances of the country’s provincial middle classes and rural world. He has also focused on immigration and traditional values.

To put it differently, Wauquiez believes the winners from globalisation will keep on supporting Macron for a long while yet and the only strategy likely to succeed is to court those who might be or actually are tempted by the extreme right. He has tried to capitalise on French National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s credibility problem: her TV debate with Macron after the first round of the presidential elections last year went terribly wrong, and her poor showing disappointed many voters.   

Wauquiez, 42 years old, is of a different calibre, but nothing is known about his leadership skills. He has a brilliant CV, possibly the brightest in France, and this is very relevant in a country that is proud of its meritocracy. He was the “major” (first) in his year at two of France’s prestigious grandes écoles, or advanced schools, the National School for Administration and the Ecole normale supérieure. He has a PhD in history and has devoted a lot of time to studying the Saint Simonians, a political and social movement of the 19th century that tried to foresee the consequences of industrialisation and plan for the scientific organisation of society. It experimented with its ideas in Mohamed Ali’s Egypt.

Intellectually speaking, Wauquiez is brilliant. I once talked to one of his aides who paid tribute to his dedication and abilities. But it is not clear whether he can be a political leader. He was a lacklustre minister under Sarkozy with no major achievements to his name, even if he did not commit any blunders. Today, he has a credibility problem as he is unconvincing when he tries to adopt populist tactics or to advocate simplistic solutions. This son of a well-to-do Parisian bourgeois family has problems convincing the popular classes that he is their candidate. His current positions towards the EU do not fit well with his previous ones. Moreover, the TV cameras do not like him as he is not telegenic.

However, a look at the French electoral map strengthens the case for choosing him to front the Republicans. They were able to hold their own in rural areas in last year’s elections as well as in small towns, even winning in some left-leaning zones. They lost in almost all the upper middle-class areas of France’s big cities, which preferred Macron. Wauquiez’s strategy today is quite similar to the one used by Sarkozy in his successful presidential bid in 2007. A previous success is a strong argument.

But is it a correct one? The same strategy did not work well in 2012, though some would say this was because it was not consistently implemented. Others would say it was faulty. Some might say this strategy is the only one available. Others would contest this. Some might say Wauquiez is right to try to deprive the National Front of its voters, while others would say that this was possible in 2007 when the Republicans were much stronger than the National Front but unfortunately this is no longer the case. Many would add that this is a very non-Gaullist strategy. The Gaullist ideology was about national union, while this strategy surfs on national divisions.

I would say that the Eurosceptic stance adopted by Wauquiez and the 51 per cent of the French who do not live in areas benefiting from globalisation deserve a better advocate than Le Pen or France’s other populist candidates. Wauquiez could draw up a plausible programme providing an alternative if he finds time for serious thought and if one can be found. 

However, this might be impossible as the aspirations of those who do not like Macron and the liberal agenda are contradictory: they do not like the European Union, but many, especially older voters, do not want to relinquish the Euro. The right in France should also be aware of the risk of “losing its soul”. To say so is not necessarily a way of being liberal.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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