FILE PHOTO - French President Emmanuel Macron attends an international meeting in Paris
By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - In his first seven months in office, President Emmanuel Macron has faced little opposition. But on Sunday, the once-dominant Republicans, now the biggest opposition party in parliament, elected a new leader they hope will recover their voice.
The conservatives' ambitious new chief, 42-year old Laurent Wauquiez, is a hard-hitting critic of the 39-year-old centrist president, whom he dismisses as out of touch with rural France, weak on security and too much in favour of closer European integration.
Wauquiez wants the party to pull its weight after months when internal divisions and the shock from failing to make the run-off in this year's presidential election held them back.
"Tonight, the Right is back!" he told supporters.
"France needs the Right because the president of the Republic (Macron) is passive against crime ... and not firm enough against radical Islam," said Wauquiez, who wants to relaunch the Republicans by taking them further to the right.
He won an overwhelming mandate with three quarters of the near 100,000 votes cast by party members on Sunday.
Wauquiez bills himself as the champion of small-town, rural France - a France, he says, with which Macron has no connection as he pursues a "start-up nation".
While there are few policy parallels between the two men, Wauquiez and Macron actually have some traits in common. Both are younger than French political leaders usually are and are graduates from the country's top elite schools who promise to shake up the political establishment.
Inside Macron's camp, some ministers have cautioned against underestimating the threat of Wauquiez.
"We need to be wary because he is very gifted, very strong and there's nothing he won't do. He will establish a violent fight," Gerald Darmanin, Macron's budget minister and former member of the Republicans, told the newspaper Le Monde.
But Wauquiez's main challenge may well come from within.
He inherits a party divided in its response both to Macron's poaching of party stalwarts and economic policy that encroaches on its turf.
Moderate veterans, ill at ease with his wooing of far-right National Front voters, have warned they could leave the party if he does not water down his hardline views.
And opinion polls show he is not popular with voters overall. Both far-left 'France Unbowed' leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen have so far been viewed as stronger opponents to Macron, polls have shown.
"Now the hard part begins," said Jean-Daniel Levy, head of Harris Interactive pollsters.
Wauquiez has time to turn the party around.
French voters will next go to the polls only in 2019, for the European parliament election. The next presidential and parliamentary elections will be in 2022.
(Additional reporting by Simon Carraud; Editing by Peter Graff)