Robert Harneis –TDO- (FRANCE) Laurent Wauquiez was elected leader of France's centre-right Republican party on Sunday, with 74.6 percent of the vote. The turnout was 50% reflecting low morale in the centre-right party.
Wauquiez, 42, succeeds Nicolas Sarkozy, and must now rebuild the party to oppose President Emmanuel Macron, who at present completely dominates the electoral scene in France. Unlike Marine Le Pen, he is clearly the intellectual equal of the President. Like Macron he is a former student of the elite Ecole National de l’Administration, where he passed out first of his year in 2001.
He is currently President of the Auvergne Bouche du Rhône Region, one of the big new regions recently created in France. Under President Sarkozy he was Minister for European Affairs and then Higher Education and Research.
His election will trigger the departure of some big names on the left of the party who refuse all compromise with the policies of the Front National. They are more in sympathy with President Macron, particularly his relaxed attitude to immigration and his strongly pro-Europe stance. Xavier Bertrand, former minister, and president of the Haut de Seine Region has already announced his departure, saying he cannot identify with the policies that the new leader is putting forward. It is likely that former Prime Minister Alain Juppé will follow him.
Wauquiez takes a relaxed attitude to those wishing to leave the party because of his election, saying that the electorate needs new faces and younger men and women. To critics of his policies because they tend towards those of the Front National he replies that he is only saying openly what the majority of French people are saying in private.
Wauquiez has been particularly careful to say that in no circumstances will he form an electoral alliance with the FN. On the other hand, he is quite open about the need to appeal to the many former Republican voters who supported Marine Le Pen at the time of the presidential elections, as well as the huge number of voters who abstained. Speaking on French television after his election he stressed ‘34% of French voters are not fascist extremists’.
He projects himself as Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant. Under President Sarkozy he supported the 2007 Lisbon European Constitutional Treaty. He now says he has changed his mind. It is likely that he will attack Macrons plans for the euro as unrealistic. He has strongly criticized him for his failure to control immigration and for errors in his security policy.
The arrival of Wauquiez at the forefront of the political scene means that for the first time since he was elected in May President Macron is faced by a credible opponent. So far, the President has managed to avoid any serious debate on his proposals for a common budget, Finance Minister and parliament for the Eurozone.
Wauquiez has the advantage that he is, within a year or so, the same age as Macron, which will to some extent neutralize the Presidents youthful appeal.
In a sense, Wauquiez’s election marks the first moves in the campaign for the presidential elections in 2022.