Argument

France’s Bizarro-Macron Is on the March on En Marche

Laurent Wauquiez is young, charismatic, ambitious — and he’s reshaping French conservatism in a bid to become president.

President of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes council, Vice-President of the French right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party, and candidate for the LR presidency, Laurent Wauquiez, delivers a speech prior to  climbing the Mont Mezenc in Les Etables, central France, on September 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
President of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes council, Vice-President of the French right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party, and candidate for the LR presidency, Laurent Wauquiez, delivers a speech prior to climbing the Mont Mezenc in Les Etables, central France, on September 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

Has Transformers director Michael Bay taken over the French franchise of identity politics? Like Optimus Prime — or is it Megatron? — the French right is decomposing and recomposing in the wake of its disastrous electoral showing this year against Emmanuel Macron and his Republic on the Move party. This transformation — made manifest last week by Florian Philippot’s unlamented fall from the vice presidency of the National Front and Laurent Wauquiez’s unrelenting rise toward the presidency of Les Républicains — may well set the stage for the French right’s effort to regain the Élysée in 2022.

In the case of Philippot’s defenestration, it remains unclear if he was thrown out the window or instead threw himself out. Even if it were the latter, though, few party members tried to stop him. Ever since joining the party in 2011 — the same year Marine Le Pen inherited the party from her father — Philippot was the odd man in. A product of the prestigious training ground for the nation’s political and administrative elite, the École nationale d’administration, Philippot saw himself as a modernizer but was seen by the party’s old guard as an interloper. When Jean-Marie Le Pen was not insulting Philippot as a closet socialist — or, worse, a “Gaullist” — he was sniggering at his homosexuality. But it was not virulent homophobia alone that drove the elder Le Pen; it was also Philippot’s pivotal role in the so-called dédiabolisation (de-demonization) of the National Front. Only by purging the party of its anti-Semitic and anti-republican elements and pushing it toward the traditional right by emphasizing above all the preservation of national sovereignty, he argued, could it hope to win power. Marine Le Pen gave him carte blanche — a decision that persuaded her father that Philippot had “bewitched” his daughter — anointing him as her senior advisor and architect of a reconstructed National Front.

The presidential and legislative elections this year, however, revealed that the house Philippot built had no foundation. Partly due to her disastrous debate with Macron, Le Pen corralled only a third of the vote, while in the subsequent legislative elections the party garnered just eight seats — seven shy of the 15-seat minimum to be officially recognized (and subsidized by public monies). Reeling from their defeat, several party officials pounced on Philippot, claiming that his focus on France’s departure from the EU (and the common currency) proved fatal. Yet not only did pundits conclude that Le Pen was unable to make a coherent case for a Frexit, but so too did voters, largely unconvinced by Philippot’s vision of French sovereignty.

When an unrepentant Philippot created his own political organization, Les Patriotes, Le Pen saw it as a challenge to her authority. She demoted Philippot and delivered an ultimatum: that her former Svengali either pull the plug on the Patriotes or pull out of the National Front. On Thursday, with a loud slamming of the door, Philippot chose the latter course. In a televised interview, Philippot described himself as the victim of those who resisted the party’s “refoundation.” Explaining that he was unable to overcome this resistance, he quit from fear that the party had shifted into a “terrifying reverse course, overtaken by its old demons.” As for his former boss, Le Pen insisted on Saturday that Philippot’s decision was “already old news.”

The news has nevertheless kept the young Laurent Wauquiez beaming his famous gaptoothed grin. Seemingly destined to become president of Les Républicains this December at just 42 years old, Wauquiez is betting his party’s future on Philippot’s fate. “The crisis at the National Front completely validates my strategy,” he confided to the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro. The crisis, he explained, “has created a space” that Les Républicains can now fill. But the party must tailor itself in order to fit that particular space: “We need to be bring home those voters who we had disappointed and voted for the National Front.”

While nearly three-quarters of the party faithful support Wauquiez’s candidacy, several prominent party figures see more peril than promise in his person. Clearly, Wauquiez’s meteoric rise has been fueled as much by opportunism as by talent. Upon graduating at the top of his class at the École nationale d’administration, Wauquiez joined the so-called Droite Sociale wing of French conservatism, one that defends the state’s role on matters of welfare and health. In 2009, the young conservative even claimed Pierre Mendès France — the courageous and incorruptible centrist postwar politician — as one of his models.

But Wauquiez’s admiration of Mendès France’s political principles did not survive his own political ambitions. Tellingly, he is often compared to Eugène de Rastignac, the young provincial in Honoré de Balzac’s novels who, upon arriving in Paris, sells his principles for power. Serving his political apprenticeship under President Nicolas Sarkozy — a man who never saw a wedge issue, especially those involving race and religion, identity and immigration, he didn’t like — Wauquiez tacked sharply toward the hard-right fringe of the party. When Sarkozy named him as minister of European affairs in 2010, Wauquiez wasted little time in displaying his mentor’s talent for provocation, diagnosing welfare as a “cancer on French society” that, it appeared, required radical surgery.

Wauquiez has since identified other cancers afflicting France’s body politic, most notably immigration and Islam. While he has boasted of learning Arabic while he worked as a volunteer at a Catholic school in Cairo, he has more recently admitted that his knowledge is, in fact, “rudimentary.” Yet even this glancing familiarity justifies, it seems, his claim that “radical Islam has taken the Islamic religion hostage.” An outspoken critic of multiculturalism — what the French call communautarisme — Wauquiez insists on preserving France’s “Christian roots.” A practicing Catholic, Wauquiez has welcomed the support of Sens Commun, the militant Catholic movement that drove the massive anti-gay marriage demonstrations in 2013. Moreover, last year, in his office as president of one of France’s regional councils, Wauquiez created a media sensation when he opted for an enormous nativity scene in the lobby of the council’s headquarters in Grenoble.

Those who question the immaculate birth might also look askance at Wauquiez’s explanation for the display — namely, it was little more than a showcase for the region’s artisans. Equal skepticism was called for in the wake of November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, when Wauquiez called for creating “internment camps” where the 4,000 or so individuals on the police’s terrorist watch list would be forcibly assigned. Critics immediately pointed out that the creation of such camps not only ran afoul of the constitution but also ran smack into one of the more unsavory chapters from France’s past. In 1958, the French government, facing an unwinnable war in French Algeria, claimed “exceptional powers” to intern in such camps anyone it deemed suspect.

While Wauquiez failed to build the camps, he nevertheless built his reputation among hard-liners in his party. Hence the mounting anxiety among the moderates who belong to the wing identified with former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. Repelled by Wauquiez’s determination to “chase after the extreme right,” a number of them have begun to gravitate toward a centrist group called Les Constructifs. According to this group’s spokesman, Xavier Bertrand, there remains a third way for French conservatives, one that refuses uncritical support for Macron but also refuses the reactionary policies embodied by Wauquiez.

Bertrand is not alone is his belief that Wauquiez sees his path to power paved with stones taken from the National Front quarry. Over the past few months, both Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, have expressed interest in discussing common goals with Wauquiez. The latter observed that her party “would have things to do with Laurent Wauquiez,” while her aunt declared last week that she was “ready to have a discussion” with him. With the same grin that has carried him so far, Wauquiez categorically rejects these invitations: “My position has never varied: no alliance with either the left or National Front. My only compass remains the right and center.” If the past is prologue to the present, it may be a question of time as to how long these positions remain categorical.

No doubt, when Wauquiez looks in the mirror, he does not see a younger and more Catholic version of Marine Le Pen. But he might see a close resemblance to the current president. Macron and Wauquiez are equally youthful and photogenic, boast the same brilliant academic pedigree, and channel the same vaulting, nearly Balzacian ambitions. Just as Macron seduced legions of left-wing voters to his centrist enterprise, Wauquiez seeks to attract right-wing voters who had drifted to the National Front. If he succeeds, he will further the deep transformation of not just the French political landscape but also French conservatism. Whether this will all be to the benefit of France is another question.

Photo credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

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