France’s centre-right has been struggling ever since French President Emmanuel Macron swept into office with a new centrist party that incorporated elements of both the right and the left. After performing well in Sunday’s regional vote, however, French conservatives may have reason to smile again. Christian Jacob, leader of Les Républicains, says the right is now "the only force for change".
There was not a minute to lose for Xavier Bertrand, who was easily reelected as head of the Hauts-de-France region. As soon as the results of the second and final round of local and regional elections were announced the evening of June 27, the candidate for the 2022 presidential election was behind his desk for a victory speech that looked more like the launch of a campaign.
"This result gives me the strength to go and meet the French people," Bertrand, 56, said from his Saint-Quentin fiefdom. As a “prerequisite” of his "recovery" programme for France, he listed the "restoration of order" in the face of an "insecurity that undermines the Republic".
"My goal is that work pays again and that we can live with dignity to raise our children … my priorities are the middle and working classes," said Bertrand, invoking a "new societal project for better living everywhere" across the Republic.
A former minister in the governments of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, Bertrand may have correctly read the public mood. Despite a record rate of abstention, the regional elections showed that Les Républicains – a party revamped and rebranded by Sarkozy – still has a significant foothold on the local level. It was thus able to keep all seven of its metropolitan regions: in addition to Hauts-de-France, the right won in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes with Laurent Wauquiez; in the Grand Est with Jean Rottner; in Ile-de-France with Valérie Pécresse; in Normandy with Hervé Morin; in the Pays de la Loire with Christelle Morançais; and in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur with Renaud Muselier.
‘Today we are clearly the only force for change’
Les Républicains party leader Christian Jacob was unequivocal about its win over both Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party and Macron’s La République en marche (LREM).
"This is a tremendous victory for us, a collapse for the RN and a humiliation for LREM," Jacob said. "We won the municipal elections by a wide margin, we won the senatorial elections, the partial legislative elections, the departmental elections, the regional elections. Today we are clearly the only force for change."
Many members of Les Républicains (LR) agreed, enthusiastically interpreting the election results as a comeback for their party.
"To those who still have doubts, the right is stronger than ever," tweeted Damien Abad, president of the LR group in the National Assembly. “The results tonight are very encouraging.”
Primarily, LR can be proud of having resisted the efforts of Macron’s LREM, which wanted to use the regional elections to fracture the right a little more by co-opting some of its messaging, notably on security issues. Instead, the results show that support for the traditional parties on both the right and the left remains strong throughout the country.
“These elections now show that out there in the country nothing has changed,” said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The Républicains and the Socialists went into these elections governing seven and five of the 12 mainland regions – they emerged governing the same seven and the same five regions, with Macron’s and Le Pen’s parties nowhere in sight.”
Abstention undercuts the right's victory
Above all, it is Macron’s LREM that emerges weakened, less than a year before the presidential election. The failure was evident in Hauts-de-France: while five ministers, including Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti were sent into the field to persuade Bertrand – who is no longer a member of Les Républicains but remains very much linked to his former party – to form an alliance with LREM. He refused, and the list led by LREM’s Laurent Pietraszewski did not even qualify for the second round.
“It’s a dismal outcome that, after four years in power nationally, the party still counts for so little out there in the regions and departments, where it has simply failed to cultivate grassroots support,” Shields said. “It remains a head without a body – governing from Paris but with no meaningful existence beyond that.”
Still, the massive rate of abstention, estimated at about 66 percent for the second round, tempers the cries of victory from the right. "What we can see is the capacity of an older electorate to continue to go to the polls. I do not know if we should interpret it as a particular enthusiasm for the right-wing candidates," political scientist Céline Braconnier, a specialist in voter abstentions, told AFP.
And while Bertrand is currently all over the media – tirelessly repeating that he will be the candidate of the right in 2022 – in reality, nothing is yet decided. Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez, who can also boast of significant victories in the Ile-de-France and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regions, respectively, are pressing ahead more discreetly. The leader of the LR senators, Bruno Retailleau, and the former chief negotiator for the EU on Brexit, Michel Barnier, are also in the running. In short, there is no shortage of contenders.
No matter whose name ends up being on the ballot, Shields said, the right is in a strong position. “Politics is about momentum, and who comes out of these elections with momentum? The traditional centre right.”
Between now and the designation of a Les Républicains candidate in November, the right has plenty time to tear itself apart, caught as it is between Macron’s centre-right government and the anti-immigrant and security agenda of Le Pen. And even if the regional elections have helped the right regain its confidence, the Élysée Palace remains very far away.
This article was translated from the original in French.