PARIS — With his plain red parka and silvery hair, Laurent Wauquiez has the air of a no-nonsense, rough-spoken authority figure, despite being just 42 and a scion of the French establishment. But some say the gray hair is dyed, the provincial accent coached and the figure he cuts more charade than reality.
The point of the act, if it is an act, is purely political. Since Wauquiez took the helm of France’s battered mainstream conservative party, Les Républicains, in December, he has done all he can to give it an edge against the extreme-right National Front as the main opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s amorphous centrist coalition.
Hence the gray hair — an appeal, perhaps, to retirees, a traditional conservative constituency. Brushing up the country accent could prove useful in painting Macron as an out-of-touch elitist. But beyond the theatrics, Wauquiez has also honed a far more drastic tactic: fighting the extreme right by echoing the extreme right, to the point, some observers say, of becoming the extreme right.
“There is now no difference between the Republicans party and the National Front,” Yasser Louati, a leading advocate for French Muslims and civil liberties, said in an interview. “Essentially, the so-called center-right is now the far right. Identity politics is just as significant in the one as in the other.”
Whatever Wauquiez’s motivations, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim platform that almost catapulted the National Front’s Marine Le Pen to the presidency last year has found a new champion in the Republicans leader. He has brought ideas once considered fringe into the mainstream.
During the presidential campaign, Le Pen repeatedly referred to “radical” Islam as a “mortal danger” and described “Islamist globalization” as an “ideology that wants to bring France to its knees.”
Of late, Wauquiez — who has also expressed his admiration for President Trump — has toed a similar line, going so far as to call for “internment camps” for all people on terrorism-related watch lists, most of whom may not have been charged with a crime.
There are also similarities on economic issues. In language that evokes Le Pen’s regular attacks on Macron, Wauquiez has called the investment banker turned head of state “the president of the golden boys of globalization.” And in a major departure from his party’s traditional pro-business line, he advocates a form of protectionism designed for “the voiceless and the middle classes.”
The overlap has not gone unnoticed. Last week, Wauquiez was questioned on a popular French television program about whether his words and ideas actually situate him on the far right. He scoffed, insisting he would cede no territory to the National Front: “Do you expect that, just to please you, I will lead a political right that doesn’t talk about immigration?”
Wauquiez’s embrace of identity politics hardly sets him apart from other mainstream conservatives across Europe, who have also veered sharply to the right in their efforts to beat back surging populist challengers. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and British Prime Minister Theresa May have all made overtures to right-wing hard-liners as they seek to shore up their power.
But none of their countries has experienced quite as great a political sea change as Macron’s France, where the old left-right divide has given way to a landscape dominated by the president’s sprawling centrist coalition. In this scenario, Wauquiez’s hard-right brand of conservatism may soon become France’s new opposition, as well as the only real alternative to Macron’s nebulous “neither left nor right” political program.
The emergence into the mainstream of a hard-line right wing reflects circumstance as well as opportunism.
Going into the 2017 presidential election, the Republicans were expected to win handily. But when a spending scandal wrecked the candidacy of former premier François Fillon, the party’s nominee, a vacuum emerged at the top. Amid the chaos, many party members jumped ship and backed Macron. At the same time, many of the voters who had supported Fillon in the beginning went for Le Pen in the second and final round.
After the election, it became apparent that the expansive coalition Macron had managed to cobble together had supplanted the Republicans as the moderate face of the center right.
Most important, Macron’s administration has already implemented much of the traditional conservative economic program. The current prime minister, finance minister and budget minister are all ex-conservatives, and their new government has followed through on two of their former party’s long-held promises: reforming France’s famously regulated labor market and abolishing its wealth tax.
At the same time, many of Macron’s social policies resemble those proposed by Alain Juppé, a centrist conservative and former prime minister who failed to win the Republicans’ nomination in 2016.
Enter Wauquiez, whose options, in the view of some experts, were limited. The new Republicans leader had no choice but to “carve out a space on the right, the only space available,” said Dominique Reynié, a political scientist and an unsuccessful Republican candidate in 2015 elections.
“The only possible position [from which] both to fight the rise of the National Front and become the opposition to Macron was to move to the right,” he said.
There have been early signs of momentum for Wauquiez’s hard line. Last week, two Republicans defeated candidates from Macron’s République En Marche (Republic on the Move) party in special elections.
But some say the seemingly shrewd two-front strategy the leader is now deploying may not pay off, especially if his party’s wealthy constituents decide that he cares more about identity politics than about protecting their financial interests.
“He risks finding himself completely cut off from the moderate right — people who want to pay less taxes but who don’t hate Arabs and who aren’t obsessed by Islam,” Reynié said.
Dominique Moïsi, a French foreign policy expert and a former adviser to Juppé during the conservative primaries, said Wauquiez may have miscalculated.
“You don’t fight populism by using the argument of the populists,” he said. “You fight populism by solving the problems or at least addressing the problems that created the populists in the first place. Placing yourself on their turf is politically and ethically wrong.”