Author : Nicholas Vinocur
Posted on : Politico Europe| December 8th, 2017
Poised to take charge of Les Républicains this weekend, Laurent Wauquiez aims to keep everyone off balance.
PARIS — While Europe hails progress on Brexit, France’s political class is bracing for a storm to hit hard on the home front. Call it Hurricane Laurent.
On Sunday, Laurent Wauquiez, the 42-year-old ex-minister who once called for abolishing the European Commission and cites Donald Trump as an “inspiration,” is set to seize the presidency of Les Républicains, the main conservative party, in an internal election.
That’s an unnerving prospect for Wauquiez’s many rivals and enemies. Moderate conservatives who’ve chosen to work with centrist President Emmanuel Macron fear that Wauquiez will radicalize their once-staid Gaullist movement, turning it into a French version of the U.S. Tea Party by echoing National Front boss Marine Le Pen.
And yet, no-one is eyeing Wauquiez more closely than Macron himself. The 39-year-old president sees many of the qualities that enabled his own rise — ambition, vision, tactical intelligence, a hefty dose of ruthlessness — reflected in the personality of his conservative opponent, who’s just two years older and attended the same elite institutions.“He is someone who needs to be taken seriously,” Le Monde daily on Friday quoted Macron as saying. “He is very determined and very organized.”
While there may be an element of personal rivalry between two leading politicians of a generation, Macron’s concern about Wauquiez is mainly about power, and Europe. Indeed, at the head of Les Républicains, Wauquiez will be ideally positioned to disrupt Macron’s grand plans for European Parliament elections in 2019, when the president aims to build a broad bloc of centrist liberals to support his plans for eurozone reform.
In that election, where seats are won proportionately to vote share, Macron will need to win support among moderate conservatives and former socialists if he wants to get anywhere near the 24-percent score he got in the first round of France’s presidential election.
Yet Wauquiez is prepared to fight back precisely on that front — by forcing conservatives to choose between him and Macron, and by making the president out as a fanatical federalist bent on selling out France’s identity. “Our vision of Europe has nothing to do with Macron’s,” Wauquiez told POLITICO in an interview last month.
While Alain Juppé, a conservative former prime minister, is offering to create a “grand centrist movement” joining forces with Macron’s La République en Marche party, Wauquiez wants nothing to do with such an alliance.
“I think this proposal is a mistake,” Wauquiez told France 3 television, referring to Juppé’s pitch. Instead he aims to make the 2019 election a giant referendum on the future of Europe, which he envisions as a “union of nations” far removed from the United States of Europe proposed by German Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, a Macron ally, in a speech on Thursday.
“What I’m saying is that we’re going to have debates about Europe,” Wauquiez added.It’s not just Macron who is paying attention to Wauquiez. His former conservative allies are also sounding the alarm, with Public Accounts Minister Gérald Darmanin warning that Wauquiez is likely to become a formidable opponent for Macron if he runs for re-election in 2022.“We’ve got to be careful about him because he’s very skilled, very good, and he’s ready for anything,” Darmanin told Le Monde Thursday. “He will set up a very violent confrontation.”