PARIS – Demoralized and divided, France’s traditional center-right party was expected to move closer to the far-right on Sunday after picking a tough-talking devout Catholic as its new leader to take on centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
The Republicans party, which represents the dominant conservative force in postwar French politics, turned to Laurent Wauquiez as it looks to recover from a disastrous year.
The 42-year-old gained 74.6 percent of Sunday’s vote, outstripping his two rivals as widely expected.
“This evening is the start of a new era for the right,” Wauquiez said after the results were announced.
“We will reinvent, we will rebuild everything,” he said. “The message is unambiguous. Yes, we can say the right has returned.”
The emergence of Wauquiez is the latest act in the redrawing of France’s political map sparked by Macron’s victory this year at the head of his new centrist Republic on the Move party.
Wauquiez holds hard-line positions on French identity, security and immigration which are close to the far-right, leading the National Front (FN) and its leader, Marine Le Pen, to offer an alliance last month.
“He had the chance to put an end to this right wing which doesn’t defend the French people. He refused our outstretched hand. It’s a shame,” FN Vice President Nicolas Bay said Sunday.
Wauquiez, leader of the southeastern Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region and a former mayor, parliamentarian and minister, has also pledged to fight the “waste of public funds.”
Some 230,000 Republicans were eligible to vote for their choice to take over from former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Republicans — one of the two traditional parties of government in France along with the Socialists — were widely tipped to win the presidency and parliament at the start of the year before being eclipsed by Macron.
The 39-year-old leader ran as an independent in the presidential election in April and May and was given a clear path to victory by a major scandal over fake jobs that engulfed the Republicans candidate, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
Macron also gambled that angry voters wanted fresh faces and saw an opportunity to restructure political life with his Republic on the Move party in the center, which would then push the left and right into more hard-line positions.
Wauquiez’s victory will see his prophecy come true to a large extent, with the Republicans clearly shifting their political positioning, while the Socialists have been outshone by a new hard-left party, France Unbowed.
The Republicans remain the biggest opposition in the National Assembly with 100 lawmakers, but they have splintered into two groups: one which backs Macron’s pro-business and pro-European agenda, and the other which is broadly behind Wauquiez.
“By running after the National Front, we will end up giving the far-right power,” Franck Riester, a former Republicans lawmaker who has broken away from the party, said recently.
The boyish but gray-haired Wauquiez, who is from the eastern city of Lyon, was elected a lawmaker for the first time at the age of 29 and became a junior minister in his early thirties under Sarkozy’s right-wing presidency from 2007-2012.
He has promised to bring the party together but he sees the solution as making the Republicans “truly right-wing” on immigration, security and sovereignty.