Is there a future for the centre-right? In what increasingly seems to be a new age in politics, there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that this tradition of conservatism – which has enjoyed pre-eminence throughout Europe in the post-war era – is facing an irrevocable decline. Nowhere is this more evident than in France, where establishment conservatives have struggled to define themselves in a context where the battle lines of politics have been fundamentally redrawn.
In a manner uncharacteristic for their corner of the political spectrum, no singular political organisation has articulated the aspirations of France’s conservatives for the entirety of the post-war period. Regardless, The Republicans – their current incarnation, which up until a rebranding in 2015 existed as the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) – can directly trace their lineage back to Charles de Gualle, a figure who many would argue was the architect of the modern French conservative tradition. As a result, while a predictable outcome considering recent political events, the party’s unequivocally awful result in May’s European elections – they only managed to win 8.48% of the vote, translating to seven out of the country’s seventy-nine seats in the parliament – would come as a shock regardless. To provide a point of comparison, the party would win twenty and twenty-nine seats in the 2014 and 2009 European elections respectively.
This had already come off the back of a weak showing at the 2017 presidential election where, despite the immense unpopularity of the centre-left incumbent, François Hollande, whose approval rating would dipped as low as 4% towards the end of his tenure, François Fillon, the Republican candidate, failed to even reach the final two, only winning 20.01% of the vote. Those sympathetic to the Fillon argue that he would have easily made the final two if not for his campaign becoming rapidly embroiled in a corruption scandal, which revealed that he had employed his wife as a parliamentary assistant, allowing her to receive five hundred thousand euros total in salary over a period of eight years, despite her allegedly not doing any actual work for this role. Nevertheless, by this stage, the damage had been done; Fillon had dealt irreparable damage to the credibility of his party, and opened the way for a presidential race between Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche and Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now renamed to National Rally) – a conflict that would establish a new provenance for French political discourse going forward, and, in turn, sign the death warrant of the Republicans.
The issue for the centre-right – not only in France, but in many other parts of Europe – is that, in the past, it has occupied an awkward middle ground between the politics of Macron and the politics of Le Pen. The former is unabashedly pro-European, supportive of the liberal world order, and international in its outlook, as well as being – for the most part - socially and economically liberal. While the latter is overtly nationalistic, rejects supranational institutions as abstractions designed to dilute the will of the people, and embraces the social conservatism often shunned by the so-called ‘liberal elite’. In contrast, the modern centre-right supports the European project, but is reluctant to back it too enthusiastically; it seeks to be politically correct, while simultaneously appealing to voters with a firmly conservative outlook. It aspires to be patriotic without being overly nationalistic, due to a hard-wired aversion to fascism.
However, in an era where politics is more polarised than ever before, such triangulation is no longer satisfactory for the bulk of voters, who are instead looking to parties that more confidently espouse the rhetoric of their respective worldviews. As a result, once the choice between Macron’s pro-European liberalism and Le Pen’s national populism was offered to electorate, the balancing act of the establishment centre-right and centre-left parties lost much of its appeal.
Unless the Republicans are able to forge a new national consensus that unites all sides of the cultural divide – a task they will find particularly daunting considering their tarnished credibility. They face a stark choice: forsaking their values by fully embracing one side of the culture war in the hopes of cultivating a new electoral coalition, or maintaining their ill-fated balancing act and fading into obscurity. We are in a new age – and those who fail to adapt cannot expect to survive for long.