by Olivier Roisin

The result of the 2017 French presidential election was a surprise. Emmanuel Macron did not belong to one of the two main parties. Moreover, he campaigned for the end of the left-right division. However, when he arrived at the Élysée, he sent out a strong signal in appointing as Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, member of the right-wing party Les Républicains. Then, is there still a room for a right-wing opposition in France?

During the electoral campaign, Emmanuel Macron was criticised by his political rivals for his ambiguity. He used to claim he was neither left-wing, nor right-wing, but rather both left-wing and right-wing. According to his detractors, he used to tell everyone what they want to hear. He has been regularly mocked for his now famous formula “et en même temps”, which is seen as a double talk: restriction of the immigration and in the same time hospitality for migrants, keeping of the nuclear energy and in the same time development of renewable energy. To these critics, Macron replied that he wants his speech reflects the complexity of all these matters.

Where is Emmanuel Macron?

Then where is Emmanuel Macron on the political chessboard? As a summary, we could say he is a centrist. His slogan “free and protect” shows that he wants to reassure everybody. However, some points must be stressed: Emmanuel Macron pointed out “liberty” as the main value during the campaign and he is economically mainly a liberal: he plans reforms for the flexibilization of work conditions, partially suppressed the ISF (solidarity tax on wealth). He appointed as Prime Minister and as Minister for the Economy and Finance two personalities from the right-wing party Les Républicains. The policy of his National Education Ministry is broadly called conservative and applauded by right-wing voters. Essentially, recent polls show that Emmanuel Macron as better opinions among the right-wing voters than among the left-wing. During the first months of Macron’s mandate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front’s leader, was broadly considered as the main opponent to the new President, while the right-wing opposition was completely inconsistent. Some right-wing personalities even recognised that Macron was making the politic that they promoted and never applied when they were in government. However, Macron was also criticised by the right-wing for his alleged lack of patriotism (especially after he declared “there is no French culture, there is a culture in France, which is diverse and multiple”), and for some taxes increases.

“The right-wing is back.”

After the significant defeat of the right-wing candidate François Fillon, involved in a case of fictitious employment, the French right-wing was puzzled. Some entered in Emmanuel Macron’s government, other created a self-appointed “Les Constructifs” (The Constructive) group in the National Assembly to support Macron’s action from the outside. Some argued that the reconstruction of the main right-wing party Les Républicains was mainly a matter of ideas before a matter of personalities and advocated a debate within the party. However, historically, the French Gaullist party has always been organised around a leader who set the pace and brings it together. The reconstruction of the movement had to be a matter of person. Elections took place last December and Laurent Wauquiez, 42 years old, was elected president of the party. His motto: “La Droite est de retour” – “the right-wing is back”.

As we have seen, Macron’s policy is in some aspects considered as a right-wing policy. Then, what place remains for a right-wing opposition in French political debate? Wauquiez said he could not leave the monopoly of the critics on social matters to the left, nor the monopoly of the immigration matters to the far-right. He considers that Macron social and fiscal policy is completely unfair to the middle class, of whom he aims to be the defender. He argues that Macron completely forgets the French citizens who live in small cities and in the countryside. He also accuses Macron’s policy of being too lenient on issues such as immigration, integration and security.

A different Europe

As far as Europe is concerned, Emmanuel Macron claims to be a federalist. In his Sorbonne speech on the 26 September 2017, he supported the idea of a reform of the European with more fiscal and social convergence among the Member States and a European budget. He also assumes a multi-speed Europe: “It is already the case, let us not be afraid of admitting that”. He also pushed for a European Defence and real European borders with a common program of formation and integration for the refugees. He also supported the view of a further enlargement of the European Union to the Balkans.

Laurent Wauquiez, younger, he was close to Jacques Barrot, a centrist, European federalist and vice-president of the European Commission between 2004 and 2009. Some people blame him for having changed his mind on the subject, and he is often accused of being a eurosceptic. In 2014, he wrote a book called: Europe: il faut tout changer (Europe: everything must change). As the title indicates, he is very critical of the European Union of today. Minister in charge of the European Affairs between 2010 and 2011, he wrote about his short experience at this place. His book is “euro critic”, but not anti-European.

His vision of future Europe differs with Emmanuel Macron on some important points. He wants more places for the Member States in the decisions making process, which is a classic revindication for the French right-wing party. Like Macron, he wants a multi-speed Europe. The core of this Europe would encompass 12 Member States with the same social and fiscal rules. In contrast to Macron, he is completely opposed to a further enlargement at the moment, considering that the European Union has already grown too much and too fast. He also pushes for a real industrial policy at the scale of the European Union. According to him, more needs to be done to support European company. He is very critical of the competition policy, which does not benefit a European company and European employment. Another flagship proposition of Wauquiez is the idea of Community preference. Finally, he wants a Europe which takes pride in its cultural heritage, in particular, Greek, Latin and Christian roots. These propositions show that is not the Eurosceptic that some people want to see in him and which is contested on his side.

In closing, can Laurent Wauquiez be a credible alternative to Emmanuel Macron? It is probably too early now because of the divisions which continues to exist in his party. However, a clarification is probably a good thing in the medium-term. As we have said, Macron is a liberal and places the individual at the centre of his policy. He is usually considered as the President of the rich and of the metropolis. He wants to gather around himself a large coalition of the centre-left and the centre-right and has as only oppositions remaining the far-left and the far-right. This would be dangerous for the pluralism and so the democracy. The last presidential elections have shown that there is a place and a demand for right-wing conservative party in France (Fillon made a score of 20% at the first round of the election, despite the “affairs”). So, les Républicains must succeed in incarnating a real alternative to Macron, opposing to his individualism values and belongings such as family, French and European identity, and defending the middle class and the peripheries.

26 February 2018
This text was published in Bullseye issue 71