American journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken said: “The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he thinks to be idiots”. Since the election of Laurent Wauquiez as new head of “Les Républicains” party, which Nicolas Sarkozy presided before failing the 2012 election bid against socialist candidate François Hollande, demagoguery seems to persist in the old world of French politics.
First, let’s quickly go back to what used to be “Les Républicains”, a center-right organization originally co-founded by Jacques Chirac under the name of UMP (Popular Movement Union) perpetuating the economic, social and moral values established by the father of the nation, Charles De Gaulle. It gathered centrists, liberals and conservatives united all together against the socialists, leaving the communists and far-right extremists well exposed. Back in those days, the political landscape in France was quite simple to understand. But today, everything is scrambled.
Front National is dead, long live Les Républicains!
After the Bygmalion false invoices scandal (€10 million) in 2014, “Les Républicains” dramatically lost momentum. On top of that, a second major scandal hit the party candidate François Fillon, during the 2017 Presidential elections after it emerged that his wife was paid nearly 700,000 euros for a suspected fake job as a French parliamentary assistant.
With a socialist political movement without charismatic leaders nor convincing arguments for voters, the head of “Front National” far-right organization, Marine Le Pen, and the new challenger, Emmanuel Macron, saw Presidency at hand. It followed that Marine Le Pen didn’t succeed to win voters’ trust, overusing populism and demagoguery as usual. As a result, her right-hand man Florian Philippot simply quitted the organization to co-found his. This unexpected event badly split the “Front National” members apart and considerably weakened Marine Le Pen.
It is in this context that the new head of “Les Républicains”, Laurent Wauquiez, saw an opportunity to rebuild his party’s image and strengthen his political power by taking advantage of the far-right party weaknesses and dig further more into populism. A large majority of progressist leaders left “Les Républicains” since then, leaving the party empty from its original moral values, economic and social foundations. Some of them like Edouard Philippe, Bruno Le Maire and Gérald Darmanin became members of Government and currently serve Emmanuel Macron to lead France’s necessary reforms.
According to an Odoxa poll for FranceInfo, 51% of people believe “Les Républicains” to be an “incompetent” party, 55% view it as “unfriendly”, and 60% find the organization dishonest. It is uncertain if Laurent Wauquiez will be able to reverse the trends as his political angle of attack dangerously merges with the Front National’s ideas and methods: the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform that almost catapulted the National Front’s Marine Le Pen to the presidency last year has found a new champion in “Les Républicains” leader.
Forget about the ethics. Euroskepticism and anti-liberalism are trendy. Let’s jump in it!
Laurent Wauquiez’s strategy is clear. Since he has no leeway to compete with Emmanuel Macron’s program he already lost the battle of political ideas. The only way for him to level up and compete with the French President is to become his opponent, even if it means turning a blind eye to his ethics and values, and often contradicting himself. In other words, he deploys the same strategy than Donald Trump using loads of jingoism, flag-waving and fake news on numerous topics. Even though Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms are what “Les Républicains” failed to deliver under Nicolas Sarkozy’s era, Wauquiez always finds diversions avoiding to give credit to the Goverment’s actions and gladly deploys the rhetoric of the far right.
The Washington Post recently mentioned: “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”. Today, the differences between “Les Républicains” and “Front National” are blurred and some of their members might even consider an alliance between these two parties to be a likely a possibility.
WauquiezGate: the straw that breaks the camel
Wauquiez is today under fire over comments he had in a private setting with students in Lyon. He said: “If any leaks come out from this meeting, it will be very bad. If we want this place to be a place of freedom, everything I say must remain between us. So no tweets, no posts on social networks, no transcription of what I say”. He then embarked on a symphony of critics that spared no one, not even former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The content of these comments were a total outcry in the political world and the only way for Wauquiez to save himself is to play the victim and spread confusion. On one hand, he assumes his words but apologizes on the other. He claims to hold a speech of truth but speaks of his own “media bullshit” on television sets. Following this umpteenth scandal, more members playing a significant role in the organization decided to quit, condemning an outrageous way to do politics where opportunities play a more important role than convictions and ethics.
Emmanuel Macron’s victory and program left France’s two traditional parties out of favor and it’s hard for Wauquiez to rise in the popularity polls. Furthermore, the populism path that he picked to lead conservatives against progressists might make things worse, especially if Macron’s reforms are an economic success. Today, all the signs show that France is back.