By Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) - France's conservative Les Republicains (LR) party, squeezed by President Emmanuel Macron on one side and the far-right on the other, elects a new leader this weekend in a ballot that will matter for Macron's chances of pushing through his reforms.
Both the frontrunner Eric Ciotti and his main opponent Bruno Retailleau hail from a more right-wing branch of LR than its current leadership, and they are set to push hard to toughen bills on a broad range of issues including immigration.
After he lost his outright majority in parliament in June, in the wake of winning a second presidential mandate, Macron, whose initial neither-left-nor-right centrist platform has veered more and more to the right, is counting on LR to see parliament adopt key bills.
But with its survival at stake, LR, with its new leadership, is set to demand a high price for its support - or refuse it. While LR or its predecessors governed France for much of its post-war history, they scored a meagre 4.78% in the presidential election in April.
"There won't be an alliance, we don't have the same views," 62-year-old Retailleau told Reuters in an interview, stressing that he considered Macron a failure on law and order.
He would not, for instance, accept as it is now a planned bill that would speed up the expulsion of illegal migrants but make it easier for those who work in sectors that struggle to hire to get papers. He disagrees with the measure because he says it would lead to "mass regularisation" of illegal migrants.
Eric Ciotti, whom polls show is the favourite to win the party leadership, is also a wholehearted member of the party's right-wing camp, expressing opinions not far removed from those of the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen.
The 56-year-old LR veteran Ciotti, whose home-base is the right-wing Nice region, says he wants to stop what he calls a "migratory invasion."
"We are together so that France remains France," Ciotti told a rally last month, saying that authority, identity and liberty were the pillars of his policy, with the fight against Islamism a key issue.
LR, independently of who wins, will for sure still seek to weigh on policies and use this to try and ensure the party's survival, including the 2027 presidential election.
One area where there could be agreement is Macron's much-expected pension reform, in which he is set to want to increase the full-pension retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65.
This happens to be in line with what Ciotti and Retailleau want.
"We have only accepted and voted texts which match our views, texts of national interest," Retailleau said.
In Macron's Renaissance party, where the ballot is closely watched, a spokesperson said they did not have a preference on who would win. But added: "We regret that LR is veering to the far-right."
LR has lost veteran figures to Macron's camp, including Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and former prime minister Edouard Philippe.
They may, at the end of the day, have no other option than seek common ground - unless LR decides to look even more to the right.
Nearly three quarters of LR voters consider LR cannot fly solo, an Odoxa poll for LCP showed last month. The favoured option for LR supporters would be an alliance with Macron's camp, but not far ahead of a deal with the RN.
LR's 91,000 members are called on to vote this weekend, with a second round next weekend, barring the unlikely scenario where one of the candidates would get more than 50% of the votes outright.
(Writing by Ingrid Melander, Editing by William Maclean)