Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is targeting Right-wing voters in an attempt to capitalise on the rout of France’s conservatives in the European elections and lure them into backing his centrist party.
Right-wing leaders believe he is bent on destroying the main opposition party, The Republicans, now in the throes of a crisis comparable to that of Britain’s Conservatives.
Gérard Larcher, the Republican speaker of France’s Senate, is fighting back by embarking on an ambitious mission this week to re-invent the centre-Right and form a new breakaway group.
Mr Larcher sees little prospect of a Republican comeback under the leadership of Laurent Wauquiez, a polarising hardliner who espouses policies close to those of Marine Le Pen, the far-Right leader.
Mr Larcher, 69, will chair a meeting of influential Right-wingers and centrists on Tuesday in a bid to begin forming a new, broad-based conservative party.
The Republicans, once seen as the natural party of government, took only 8.5 per cent of the vote in the European elections, an even more humiliating defeat than that suffered by the UK Conservative Party.
Across Europe, the centre-Right has lost support as voters have drifted towards fringe parties.
Mr Macron is aiming to co-opt Republican party officials before local elections next year. Sébastien Lecornu, a former Republican now serving as his minister for local communities, told conservative mayors this weekend: “Quit The Republicans… Put your energy into helping us rebuild the country rather than your party.”
Mr Lecornu said populist nationalists were plotting to take over local governments and Republican mayors should join forces with Mr Macron’s party to block the advance of Ms Le Pen’s National Rally. “They are not obliged to agree with us on everything,” he added.
The Republicans appear in danger of fragmenting. Mr Larcher’s initiative to reform the centre-Right without joining a coalition led by Mr Macron has already been rejected by a key centrist leader. Separately, a group of younger Republican MPs has issued an ultimatum to Mr Wauquiez to form a “renewal committee to make the voices of a new generation of the French Right heard” by this week or face a leadership challenge.
The ranks of the party faithful have thinned since the 2017 election that brought Emmanuel Macron to power. The Republicans’ presidential candidate, François Fillon, was sunk by a corruption scandal. The party has since expelled several MPs for working with the centrist president, including Edouard Philippe, his prime minister.
Some Republicans are calling for Nicolas Sarkozy, the charismatic ex-president, to return as leader. But Mr Sarkozy is embroiled in corruption investigations and failed to qualify for the second round of the 2017 presidential election.
Ms Le Pen’s party narrowly defeated Mr Macron’s République En Marche in the European elections, but it won fewer votes than in the previous European poll five years ago. Mr Macron, who had been braced for a worse defeat, sees the result as a mandate to push forward with reforms.