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From Chirac to Ciotti: The French Republicans’ Rightward Drift

By announcing on June 11 his intention to form an alliance with the far-right National Rally in the run-up to early legislative elections, Les Républicains party leader Éric Ciotti has decisively broken with his party’s historic strategy. He has crystallized a situation that has been evolving towards such an outcome for years. “Let’s stop creating fictitious oppositions,” he declared.

Les Républicains, the prominent center-right political party, has undergone a remarkable transformation since its inception. From its beginnings as a unifying center-right force, the party has evolved to embrace more nationalist and conservative policies. This journey reflects significant shifts in the French political landscape. Understanding the current identity of Les Républicains requires a look back at what the party once represented and how it has changed.

The story began in 2002 with the creation of the Union for a Popular Movement. Jacques Chirac, the then-French president, was instrumental in forming the party, which sought to unify the fragmented center-right political spectrum. Several parties, including Chirac’s own Rally for the Republic and the Liberal Democracy party merged to create a stronger political entity.

The stability of the Republican party under Chirac was appealing to voters, but it was Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency that marked a significant transformation. Sarkozy’s tenure saw the introduction of various economic reforms, such as tax cuts and pension reforms, and efforts to reduce public spending. His administration’s stricter immigration controls and tough stance on law and order resonated with right-leaning voters, setting the stage for the party’s future ideological shifts.

In 2015, under Sarkozy’s leadership, the Union for a Popular Movement rebranded itself as Les Républicains, seeking to refresh its image and move beyond past controversies. While maintaining center-right policies, the party began to adopt more conservative stances on social issues, reflecting changes within its voter base.

After Sarkozy, several leaders influenced the party’s direction. François Fillon, the party’s candidate in the 2017 presidential election, promoted economic liberalism and traditional family values. However, his campaign was marred by scandal, leading to significant electoral defeat and a shift in support towards Emmanuel Macron’s newly formed La République En Marche. This period is often seen as pivotal, marking the beginning of the Republican party’s decline and the rise of Macron’s centrist movement.

Laurent Wauquiez’s tenure as party leader from 2017 to 2019 marked a pronounced shift towards the right. Wauquiez emphasized national identity, immigration, and security, themes commonly associated with the far-right National Front. His leadership saw the party increasingly embrace hardline positions on these issues, setting the stage for Éric Ciotti’s ascent.

Éric Ciotti’s rise within Les Républicains marked a significant shift towards more conservative and nationalist policies. Known for his firm stance on security, immigration, and national identity, Ciotti has become a prominent figure in French politics, aligning closely with a significant segment of the party’s base. His policies and rhetoric have often mirrored those of National Rally, creating tension within the party.

Following the challenges Les Républicains faced after the 2017 election, Ciotti’s prominence grew as he championed hardline policies. By 2021, he had become the leading force on the party’s right wing. However, his flirtation with National Rally created significant friction with centrist figures within his own party. Despite rejecting formal alliances with National Rally, Ciotti frequently expressed views aligned with those of the far-right party, stating during Les Républicains primary campaign in 2021, “There will never be an alliance with [National Rally],” while simultaneously acknowledging, “I share some concerns of [National Rally] voters, but I refuse any compromise with their leaders.”

The turning point came after Macron’s party lost to National Rally in the European Parliament elections. On June 11, Éric Ciotti announced on French television an alliance with National Rally, hoping “all outgoing [Les Républicains] MPs will join forces” with National Rally “to preserve a powerful group in the Assemblée Nationale.”

Le Monde described this decision as a significant departure from the principles traditionally upheld by the Gaullist party, which had always maintained a separation from the far-right National Rally due to its doctrines of national preference and rejection of foreigners. The shockwaves from Ciotti’s announcement were quickly felt within the party.

On June 12, amid the fallout, Les Républicains leadership sought to depose Ciotti at a meeting scheduled at the party headquarters. Ciotti, however, closed the doors of the headquarters, citing “threats and disorder,” forcing party leaders to meet elsewhere. The meeting concluded with a unanimous decision to remove Ciotti from his position and exclude him from the party altogether. François-Xavier Bellamy and Annie Genevard were appointed interim leaders of Les Républicains.

Ciotti called the decision illegal, asserting, “I am and remain the president” of Les Républicains, and decried the meeting as a “flagrant violation” of party statutes. The situation escalated to the point where passwords to the party’s social media accounts were changed to prevent Ciotti from communicating on behalf of the party.

Political analysts across the spectrum have blamed Emmanuel Macron for the current instability, citing his decision to dissolve parliament as a contributing factor. While this move was seen as a strategy to fracture the French right, Macron’s primary concern appears to be the unified French left, which presents a significant challenge to his leadership.

As the dust settles, it is clear that the Republican party is more fractured than ever. The evidence of its shift from center-right to far-right is increasingly apparent. Moving forward, it is crucial to reflect on the core values that once unified the party and consider the future direction it will take. The path chosen by Les Républicains could either signal a resurgence of a unifying center-right force or mark a definitive shift towards a more fragmented political landscape on the far-right.