STRASBOURG — Say hello to the anti-Macron.
Brash, young and fiercely ambitious, ex-minister Laurent Wauquiez is set to seize the presidency of France’s largest conservative party in an internal election next month.
As head honcho of Les Républicains (LR), the 42-year-old right-winger would be ideally positioned to challenge President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party in upcoming local and European Parliament elections.
Wauquiez — a conservative “bad boy” who once refused to officiate a legal gay marriage when he was mayor — aims to weaponize his staid party and knock Macron off balance six months into his term.
But to take on the president, Wauquiez must first get LR into shape, fixing a party that’s been divided and demoralized ever since François Fillon crashed out of the presidential race in April.
His strategy has nothing to do with seeking unity.
“[Macron] campaigned to reduce the number of civil servants by 150,000. At this rate, it will take him two centuries to keep that promise” — Laurent Wauquiez
The two-time minister who once called Donald Trump an “inspiration” is yanking his party hard to the right, staking out anti-Macron positions on everything from economic policy to the role of Islam in France.
And so what if he often channels far-right chief Marine Le Pen and infuriates moderates like former Prime Minister Alain Juppé? Wauquiez, known as “the killer” to some fellow conservatives, is accustomed to making enemies.
In an interview with POLITICO, the gangly long-distance runner criticized Macron as an overhyped president who was “not doing the job” for the French economy, and “heading into a wall” on the EU.
“I don’t want us to believe in any fables,” said Wauquiez, who is currently chief of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in eastern France. “Emmanuel Macron is not doing the job of [former German Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder in Germany. He’s not doing the job of a [former British Prime Minister David] Cameron or a [Margaret] Thatcher. Public spending is going up… And the reform of the labor code, when you look at the decrees, is a tiny reform of the labor code.”
“I don’t want businesses to be fooled or fall under any illusions,” he added. “In no way are we dealing with a transformation that is up to the standard of what France needs.”
A snaking rise to the top
For Wauquiez, like Fillon, what France needs is a brutal reduction in public spending.
He points to his own record in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, a region he’s run as a sort of mini-state refusing subsidies for jobseekers and slashing operating costs by 5 percent, as the antithesis of Macron-ism. The president, he argues, is making adjustments around the edges and refusing to take on the elephant in the room: public spending that accounts for 55 percent of the country’s GDP.
“He campaigned to reduce the number of civil servants by 150,000,” Wauquiez said. “At this rate, it will take him two centuries to keep that promise. I wish him a long life.”
If Wauquiez comes off as acerbic, it’s partly because he wants to sell himself as the Mr. Hyde to Macron’s Dr. Jekyll.
Where Macron is moderate on public spending, Wauquiez stakes out a position to the right of Margaret Thatcher. Where Macron preaches eurozone integration, Wauquiez wants a “union of nations.” And where Macron is liberal on social issues, Wauquiez is ultra-conservative.
It’s also a question of style. Macron touts his “complex thoughts” and multi-clause phrases. Wauquiez cultivates bluntness and simplicity. His one-liners, like the time he called for the abolition of the European Commission, come right out of Trump’s playbook. They’re designed for maximum outrage.
What makes Wauquiez’s Trump-like act all the more brazen is the fact that his pedigree is at least as refined as Macron’s, if not more so.
Both graduated from the elite ENA school of public administration, but only Wauquiez was admitted to the ultra-selective École Normale Supérieure research institution. Wauquiez was the youngest MP of his generation; Marcon never held elected office before becoming president.
The crucial difference is that Wauquiez is a party man who’s taking over the family shop, while Macron founded his own.
Using shock statements as a tool for advancement, Wauquiez climbed the ranks in the midst of a long civil war that nearly destroyed the conservative party. While his ex-boss Nicolas Sarkozy was fighting a failed battle for a presidential nomination, Wauquiez muscled himself into a leadership position and is now the lead candidate ahead of a party election on December 10 and 17.
Maël de Calan, a former Juppé backer who’s pushing for more debate within the party, is another contender. But he’s seen as having little chance against Wauquiez.
On his way to the top, Wauquiez has made plenty of enemies. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire once accused him of “reigning through terror,” and LR bigwigs have accused him of being a “clinical narcissist” with no loyalties or positions that he will not readily abandon. When Michel Barnier’s name came up, Wauquiez told POLITICO that the EU’s Brexit negotiator “would not have only nice things to say about [him].”
“My project is a union of nations around very clear projects. It’s not to dissolve France in Europe” — Laurent Wauquiez
It’s easy to see why that might be so. In 2005, Wauquiez voted in favor of the treaty that would have established an EU constitution, but he has since positioned himself as a Euroskeptic-lite, and sometimes not so lite. After Britain’s vote to leave the EU, he proposed to abolish the European Commission — a position from which he’s since distanced himself.
Today, Wauquiez criticizes what he calls a positive stance on Brexit in Paris: “Everyone is pretending to say, ‘OK, Britain is out, that’s perfect,’ without there being any sort of reflection to say: ‘Can we propose an overhaul of the EU that would take into account what they’ve expressed? And tell them to stay inside the European Union?’”
“We need to review the method of negotiations, which Barnier is leading with a lot of talent,” he added. “There will be an after, we’ll need to keep talking, and maybe find a way that would allow them to rejoin, but differently.”
As friendly as Wauquiez was to Britain, he was downbeat on Macron’s attempts to overhaul the eurozone. He accused the president of proposing a “technocratic federalism” that ignored the root causes of Euroskepticism, arguing that Macron’s project would “dissolve France” in the bloc.
“My project is a union of nations around very clear projects,” he said, “It’s not to dissolve France in Europe … So our European project has nothing to do with Macron’s.”
“I think we can’t escape the fundamental question of the architecture of the member states, including by accepting that a large member and a small member don’t have the same weight,” he added. “When you are France and Germany it’s not the same as Lithuania, even if I love them.”
“When [Macron] says that we’re going to build Europe without ever consulting the people [via referendums], that’s a terrifying thing to admit for a political leader, and evidence of clear disdain,” he said.
Dance with Le Pen
Such accusations, which skirt the fact that Macron came to power after building his own grassroots movement and that he plans to hold “democratic conventions” in each European country next year, bring Wauquiez closer to Marine Le Pen.
“France should start by working on itself, because there won’t be any European reform if France doesn’t change itself” — Laurent Wauquiez
The National Front party has long seen Wauquiez as a potential ally, someone who could bring the far right out of its isolation. But Wauquiez rebuffed Le Pen’s proposal to join forces this week, stating he would never enter an alliance with the far right.
Instead, he aims to steal Le Pen voters by echoing her tough talk on immigration, Islam and terrorism — he’s called for throwing all people suspected of being linked to terrorists into jail — with the added appeal that unlike her, he could one day end up in power.
If he ever does become president, Wauquiez says he’ll work first and foremost on shoring up his country’s credibility, which he says is still lacking.
“France should start by working on itself, because there won’t be any European reform if France doesn’t change itself,” he said.
Macron, his Dr. Jekyll, could not have said it better himself.