The traditional French right, which has given five of the eight heads of state of the Fifth Republic, faces the presidential elections of 2022 without a leader or program. The situation is critical. The Republicans (LR), the latest mark of the formation that under Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy brought together centrists and conservatives, are caught between two forces that have not stopped laminating it in recent years. On one side, President Emmanuel Macron, who has won over his more moderate electorate. To the other, the extreme right of Marine Le Pen, who aspires to win the votes of the right wing of LR.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that the right wing, for the first time in its history, is in danger of death," wrote Guillaume Tabard, an editorial writer for the conservative newspaper two years ago. Le Figaro, in the book Malédiction de la droite (The curse of the right), a 60-year history of personal and ideological disputes in an ideological and partisan field marked by the figure of General De Gaulle. The danger, since then, has only grown worse.
"The next presidential election will be the test of the truth," says Tabard by phone. The erosion of Macron in power and the difficulty of Le Pen to appear as a credible alternative to a majority of French people could allow the LRs to "recreate a space" that, with a suitable candidate, would return to him the central role that he has had in the country since the post-world war.
"But the opposite can also happen", warns Tabard. That is, the Republicans were drowned by a double clamp. On the right, by a Le Pen who tries to smooth the most unpleasant angles of her character and present an image of moderation, and "whose victory is no longer unthinkable as it was five years ago." And on the centrist flank, by a Macron who, despite having been a minister in a socialist government, surrounded himself from the first moment with ministers from conservative ranks, has governed with center-right policies and, since he came to power in 2017 , has attracted a good part of the conservative voters for his project.
Between Macron and Le Pen, Los Republicanos has an increasingly narrow corridor. How to distinguish yourself from the President of the Republic who, until the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, promoted economic reforms that the right had always promised? How to compete with the heavy-handed rhetoric on security, immigration and Islamism of the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, a former LR militant? And, if you look to the right, how can you compete in populism or euroscepticism with Le Pen if LR is a bourgeois and institutional party?
A consolation for the party is that the other great formation of the last decades in France, the socialist, is even worse, and the divisions on the left are deeper than those on the right, which, despite everything, retains the majority in the Senate and is the second group with the most deputies in the National Assembly.
The paradox is that “never has French society been so right-wing, and the political right has never been so offside”, according to Tabard, who quotes a phrase attributed to the socialist François Mitterrand: “France is a right-wing country in which the left can only win by accident ”. The right wing would explain why, in the midst of a pandemic, it is citizen insecurity or Islam that have monopolized the political debate at many times. But the Republicans don't make any money.
Another difficulty is finding a leader. The last presidential election that the right won was with Sarkozy in 2007. With Sarkozy's defeat against the socialist François Hollande in 2012, what Tabard calls in his book the “descent into hell” began. They were a few years not so much of doctrinal discussions but of ego fights and corruption scandals. And they led to the debacle of the presidential elections of 2017, when the LR candidate did not even qualify for the second round. The candidacy of former Prime Minister François Fillon exploded in mid-flight when it was revealed that for decades the candidate had paid his wife with public money for a fictitious job.
Fillon was sentenced in 2020 to five years in prison. Last March, Sarkozy was sentenced to three years for another case. Both have appealed the sentences. But the judicial situation of the last conservatives to govern France, and the flight towards macronism of leaders with a future projection – Darmanin, the Minister of Economy Bruno Le Maire or the popular former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe – show the magnitude of the problem. Another sign of the confusion: the only right-wing candidate with any chance is, according to the polls, the president of the Hauts-de-France region Xavier Bertrand, who left LR in the military in 2017. Bertrand goes on his own and refuses to participate in a process of primaries if they end up being held.
Several candidates in the pools, but few options
Xavier Bertrand, a former insurance agent, minister with both Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy and current president of the Hauts-de-France region, was the first right-wing politician to run as a candidate for the presidential elections in April and May. 2022. Bertrand is an outlier candidate. He is no longer a member of Los Republicanos (LR) and until now his moderate positions have brought him closer to the line of President Emmanuel Macron.
If the first round of the presidential elections were held today, Bertrand would be in third position behind the leader of the extreme right, Marine Le Pen, and President Macron. All the polls coincide. Therefore, he would not qualify for the second round, which would be played between Le Pen and Macron.
Not that Republicans have many alternatives, although the list of those who dream of the Elysee Palace is long and there is still time to run. The pools include from Valérie Pécresse, the president of Île-de-France – the Paris region – to another regional baron and former head of LR, the president of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Laurent Wauquiez.
A compelling candidate, and one who undoubtedly lets himself be loved, could be Michel Barnier, a veteran Eurocrat and Brexit negotiator in Brussels. He enjoys an image of an experienced statesman, but at the same time it is difficult to think how he could capture the right-wing voter who is tempted to vote for the eurosceptic Le Pen. Barnier also belongs to a moderate right that could perfectly integrate into the Macron government.
A candidate with options would be the most popular active politician in France, according to some polls, but he has already hinted that he will not be a candidate unless the current president of the Republic resigns, a postulate that does not enter into the forecasts. This is Édouard Philippe, a former member of the Republicans and prime minister with Macron between 2017 and 2020, when the president replaced him by Jean Castex.
The idea of a candidacy for Philippe, now mayor of the port city of Le Havre, makes some macronistas nervous. Philippe, who just published the book Impressions et lignes claires (Clear lines and impressions), has declared: "Let no one doubt my loyalty, or my freedom."