Laurent Wauquiez has been elected as the new leader of France’s main conservative party, La République, yesterday, receiving 74.6 percent of votes.
Wauquiez’s promise of “a new era for the right” has left some of the party’s centrist’s concerned that he will follow the National Front, taking the party further to the social and cultural right.
He has hard-line views on immigration and security and has said that La République must be “truly right-wing” in order to stand apart from France’s president Emmanuel Macron and his new En Marche party.
The 42-year-old leader of the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region was elected after the first round of voting, ahead of Florence Portelli (who won 16.11 percent) and Mael de Calan, taking 9.25 percent of the vote.
However, his victory was weakened as only 99,600 members, just 42.46 percent, of the party turned out to vote.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy brought a turnout of 58 percent during his party leadership election in 2014 and Wauquiez’s small mandate means he could have a difficult leadership job ahead of him.
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In his victory speech Wauquiex promised La République’s members that he would help the party “reinvent” itself and “rebuild everything” after they suffered a highly unsuccessful performance in the country’s presidential elections this year, with Macron romping home to victory and upsetting France’s political landscape.
La République’s candidate, Francois Fillon, suffered the party’s worst defeat since 1958 and left the party without a leader.
Wauquiez — a strict Catholic — is against same sex marriage, fertility treatment IVF and believes that France’s social model is out of date, promising to prevent the “waste of public funds”.
Wauquiez denies that his positions are hard right despite running his leadership campaign on anti-welfare and anti-immigration policies and has plans to appoint a youthful shadow cabinet to revive his party and challenge the perceived political freshness of Macron’s newly created party.
Wauquiez must first bring stability to his own party. One La République politician, Guillaume Larrivé, told FranceInfo “[Wauquiez] becomes leader of the opposition tonight” as La République battles in fighting between its moderate members, who support Macron, and the hard right members.
Franck Riester, a former La République member of parliament, said:
By running after the Front National, we will end up giving the far right power.
Mael de Calan, who also ran in the leadership contest, said:
If tomorrow the Republicans become a Eurosceptic, anti-liberal party, it will no longer be our party.
Wauquiez also has to try to rebuild his party’s image. According to an Odoxa poll for FranceInfo, 51 percent of people believe La République to be an “incompetent” party, 55 percent view it as “unfriendly”, and 60 percent find La République dishonest.
Wauquiez’s surge in popularity comes as Macrons victory left France’s two traditional parties out of favour.
Macron has managed to fend off competition from the right by implementing pro-business reforms and appointing a centre-right prime minister, forcing La République to consider a move to the right.