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A Right Opposition Confined to the "Ministry of Word"

A Right Opposition Confined to the
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

Laurent Wauquiez, recently elected President of the conservative Les Republicains party, seeks to establish an effective opposition to a dynamic President whose popularity is surprisingly high. Edouard Lecerf, deputy director-general of the French research and consulting firm BVA, examines the challenges that need to be addressed by this party to overcome hurdles.

In your opinion, the French right-wing party, Les Républicains, is facing a triple crisis: a reduced political space, a lack of dynamism and a leadership problem. Could you explain what this entails?

A narrowed political space:

The primaries during the presidential elections were meant to designate a legitimate candidate for the entire right-wing electorate. However, François Fillon’s scandals undermined this legitimation and consolidation process. His choice to align his campaign on very conservative values instead of openness towards the center-right did not help to counteract this trend either.

Absent in the second round, the governmental right was furthermore deprived from the opportunity to rally beyond its own camp and to become, in the event of a defeat, the leader of the opposition.

Eventually, the appeal of Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy, and his ability to both seduce and reassure voters eager for disruption, led to the formation of a new and different political space. Voters from all sides, especially those of the center-right, sought shelter or found themselves in this space.

A lack of dynamism:

Several elements have slowed down the dynamic of Les Républicains so far. Opinion polls make no secret of the party’s weakness. Indeed, its image has made no progress since the election, which is contrary to what usually happens to most opposition parties.

The first factor lies in the trauma of the defeat. After François Hollande’s term, many voters and right-wing political leaders, used to the almost automatic left-to-right shift in government, expected this election to be “their turn”. Yet, what is still seen by some as a confiscation as much as a defeat has numbed their enthusiasm . The "blast" effect of Emmanuel Macron's victory in the presidential election and the large domination of his movement La République En Marche during the legislative elections contributed to the desorientation of many voters, as well as of right-wing political leaders.

Once elected, the new French president fostered sympathy among right-wing voters a little further. A first series of measures, on the fiscal field and the job market, has somehow locked - at least for now - a portion of the right-wing opinion, which may have been tempted to return quickly to its “base camp”.

More generally, as French people close to Les Républicains spontaneously expressed in BVA’s POP Community, Emmanuel Macron’s activism seems to have confined his opposition to the “Ministry of Word” (as opposed to the “Ministry for Action"). Unfortunately for them, the credibility of the tenants of such Ministry is usually very low in the eyes of the French.

A lack of leadership:

Les Républicans’ weakness is twofold in this area.

  • It first concerns the party itself, and its capacity to embody opposition leadership. Despite Les Républicains having a large group of representatives within the National Assembly and a strong network of local elected officials, too obvious divisions and successive departures are detrimental to both the density and the attractiveness of their speeches.
  • It also concerns Laurent Wauquiez himself. Despite an easy win to become President of Les Républicains, he remains challenged in opinion polls by less controversial personalities among his party’s supporters such as François Baroin, former senator, Xavier Bertrand, President of the Regional Council of Hauts-de-France, or even tutelary figures such as Nicolas Sarkozy, former President, and Alain Juppé, former Prime Minister. 

Macron’s popularity reaches 52% today. What explains this unusual patience of the French citizens vis-à-vis their president? What is their view of the Macron presidency so far?

The rise in the President’s (and the Prime Minister’s) popularity, revealed by the latest polls, is unusual indeed. Apart from exceptional phenomena (cohabitation, terrorist attacks…) former Presidents have all endured gradual and almost continuous cycles of disaffection.

At first, Emmanuel Macron did not escape the rule. His popularity fell sharply during the first months following his election, dragged down by the pullback of the most vulnerable segments of the population and of Socialist supporters. In the meantime, right-wing supporters remained steadfast. The current level of positive opinion about him, which has regained the majority, can mainly be explained by the return of some of the people who once claimed to be shocked by measures such as the individualized housing assistance decrease or by the reforms on wealth tax and general social contribution. To account for their "rather" favorable opinion, French people now put forward the trustworthiness of the Head of State ("he does what he said he would", "he does not deviate from his line, despite criticism"), his activism, and his "pragmatism". For all of these reasons, people interviewed by BVA also highlighted the contrast with his predecessors.

His singularity  and continued action have somehow allowed the President to suspend - at least for now - the opinion timer. By accelerating action, he delays the time the French will want to see results.

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