To understand the collapse of Les Républicains, one has only to re-run one of the televised debates that preceded yesterday’s European elections. France2 had asked each of party representative to start off with a show-and-tell: each was to present an object illustrating the deep meaning of his or her party’s campaign. Le Pen’s choice was brilliant: she showed an image of a truck driver, one Loïc, who had suffered, she said, from the EU’s detached worker directive. François Bayrou, representing LREM, showed an owl–the owl of Minerva, he said, or Athena for the slower students in the class–and left everyone baffled as to what it meant. And then came Laurent Wauquiez, who held up a picture of a church. “France and Europe are rooted in Christian civilization,” he said, presumably to parlay the solid Christian credentials of his party’s lead candidate, François-Xavier Bellamy into a bid for the Catho identity vote. But then he added, “And in the Enlightenment.”
Now, Wauquiez, who graduated at the top of his class in the ENA, has presumably heard the phrase “Écrasez l’infâme!” and knows that one should at least place a discreet distance between Enlightenment talk and gestures to the mysteries of the Sacraments. With this shameless pandering he showed himself to be a latter-day Tartuffe–or a TV studio “bullshitter,” as he once confessed himself to a group of students, one of whom had a hidden tape recorder. Insincerity has been Wauquiez’s stock-in-trade since he took over LR, donned his famous parka, and began presenting himself as un plouc out to wreak vengeance on les Parigots.
Enter François-Xavier Bellamy, the perfect choir boy, whom Wauquiez inexplicably chose to represent his party. Nobody had ever heard of him, except for listeners of Esprit public on France Cul’, where he had been a panelist before he became a candidate. If you did listen to that show, you knew that Bellamy, though well-spoken, seemed to be living in another century. The choice seemed odd, but at some point a few weeks back, Bellamy inexplicably began to rise in the polls, and pundits began to credit Wauquiez with some inspired insight into the mind of the right-wing rump. Even those in the party initially skeptical of nominating an anti-abortion philosophy teacher with no political experience began to think maybe something was up when Bellamy hit 15 percent in the polls.
But yesterday the balloon was popped. Bellamy plummeted back to earth, and the once mighty Gaullists fell with him to their lowest score in history, 8.5 percent, down in the dust with the Socialists and Mélenchon.
What happened? The heart had already been cut out of the ex-UMP when Macron lured away the Juppéistes and gave the market liberal right almost everything it had ever dreamed of. Fillon tried to salvage his damaged candidacy by appealing to the traditionalist Catholic vote, and Wauquiez must have thought he could pull off the same trick again. But some ex-LR voters evidently decided to voter utile, while others may have found Le Pen’s anti-immigrant Euroskeptic rhetoric more invigorating than Wauquiez’s; Bellamy, the actual tête de liste, mostly avoided such vulgarity anyway, perhaps alienating the less savory elements in the old right.
The upshot is that Wauquiez is probably on his way out. He has called for a party congress to put everything–strategy, ideas, “values”–on the table, but not until next fall, and Valérie Pécresse called on him to resign today. She is the obvious replacement, but to have any chance of winning she will need to woo back some of the Constructivists who defected to Macron. Her maneuvering will be interesting to watch. For instance, she has already called on Xavier Bertrand, who quit LR because he couldn’t stomach Wauquiez, to rejoin the fold, even though the two could become rivals in the next presidential contest.