The main political party of the French Right, Les Républicains, needs a new president to replace Christian Jacob, the previous titleholder who resigned in the days following the June 2022 legislative elections. The first round of elections was held online on December 3rd and 4th and led to the qualification of the two favourites, namely Éric Ciotti and Bruno Retailleau.
The Les Républicains party, which for a long time embodied the right wing almost exclusively in the French political landscape, has been going through a painful identity and programme crisis for several years. It has seen its results gradually erode election after election, to the benefit of both Emmanuel Macron’s centrist formation and the Rassemblement National. The crushing defeat of candidate Valérie Pécresse in the April 2022 presidential election sounded a serious warning about the survival and future of this political force. Today, if Les Républicains are the main force represented in the Senate, they are now overtaken in the National Assembly on both sides by the government party Renaissance, and by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.
The election for the presidency should give Les Républicains the opportunity for a new rebound, in order to prepare in the best conditions for the presidential elections of 2027, which could see a right-wing candidate return to power after two terms of Emmanuel Macron. Three candidates faced each other in the first round. Bruno Retailleau, leader of Les Républicains in the Senate, was up against southern deputy Éric Ciotti, who came out on top in the first round of the party’s primaries in the presidential election. The third man was Aurélien Pradié, a less experienced deputy with a more centrist line. Both Bruno Retailleau and Éric Ciotti are running for the presidency of the LR party but have no presidential ambitions at the national level—at least for the moment. Both have expressed their support for the candidacy of Laurent Wauquiez, the president of France’s second-largest region, for the 2027 election. But Laurent Wauquiez has ostensibly indicated his preference for Éric Ciotti.
Unsurprisingly, it is Ciotti, the deputy of Nice, who came out on top, with 42.73% of the militants’ vote. Bruno Retailleau also qualified for the second round, with 34.45%. Aurélien Pradié withdrew from the race after having collected only 22.29% of the votes.
Éric Ciotti thus has a dynamic that should allow him to win in the second round and make him reach the post of president of the party—a consecration for this man whose place has long been marginal in the party apparatus. But the game is not completely played in advance. Ciotti and Retailleau have in common that they both assume a conservative right-wing discourse, but each in their own way. They both want to break with a certain curse of the French governmental Right, which pushes it to run after the Left and to seek the moral anointing of its opponents. But this ‘conservative audacity’ does not manifest itself on the same subjects. Ciotti represents the identity-based sensibility of Les Républicains. His discourse is judged by the media as the most compatible with that of Éric Zemmour. His favourite subjects are security and immigration. On the societal level, however, he assumes a form of progressivism. For example, during the national debate on the inclusion of the right to abortion in the constitution, he recently stated that he wanted a party that was “in step with society” on these issues—and he criticised Bruno Retailleau, whose convictions looked too much “towards the past.”
Bruno Retailleau embodies a form of respectability—which some will interpret as a form of timorous caution. He began his political career alongside Philippe de Villiers and is now seeking to attract the more traditional electorate, as shown by the support given to him by the MEP from Versailles, François-Xavier Bellamy. On the issue of abortion, he clearly asserted his difference from Ciotti, explaining that he refused the moral pressure of the Left on this matter. If he wants to win, he faces a perilous exercise. He has to send signals to the conservative fringe that expects him to be consistent, and a moderate discourse likely to win over, for example, Aurélien Pradié’s voters, some of whom are frightened by Ciotti’s identity-based discourse.
For the moment, Aurélien Pradié has not given any voting instructions, but with 22% of the vote, he is in a position to swing the election in one direction or the other. The unsuccessful candidate in the Republican primary, Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts de France region, has called for support for Bruno Retailleau, whom he sees as the best guarantor of maintaining the unity of the party—a way for him to criticise the divisive statements of Ciotti. Once again, the Les Républicains party seems to find itself trapped by its old demons, trying to find a way to the difficult synthesis between the Right and the Centre.