French conservatives reeling after Macron’s kiss of death

PARIS — France’s conservatives have been thrown into crisis after a regional president broke ranks to form an alliance with President Emmanuel Macron’s party.

Renaud Muselier, the president of the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, is expected to run for re-election in June on a joint ticket with Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party.

Under the deal, brokered by Prime Minister Jean Castex on Sunday, LREM will withdraw its own candidate for the election.

The move stunned the conservative Les Républicains, the once-dominant political force that has been struggling to rebuild after a crushing defeat in the last presidential election.

Analysts saw the maneuver as an effort by Macron’s camp, which was initially seen as centrist, to claim more political territory on the right, leaving the far right led by Marine Le Pen as his only significant opposition on that side of the spectrum.

“It’s a knockout blow from Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to destroy the right,” said Stéphane Zumsteeg, a pollster from Ipsos. “He is trying to confuse the voters and eat up all the space between him and Marine Le Pen.”

Polls predict Macron will likely face Le Pen in the second round of the next presidential election in 2022.

On Tuesday, the conservatives were still trying to figure out their response to Muselier’s act of betrayal, having initially announced they would withdraw their support for him.

“We are not all talking about excluding [Renaud Muselier],” said Christian Jacob, president of Les Républicains. “This is a political move from En Marche because they know they have failed and don’t have any candidates. They are plotting against us and we have to dodge their attacks.”

On Tuesday evening, Les Républicains heavyweights were still discussing whether they should back a rival candidate against Muselier.

Macron’s rightward shift

French commentators have portrayed the deal between Muselier and En Marche as a watershed moment. Macron has tilted to the right since being elected, abandoning his “neither right nor left” approach to politics and pursuing right-wing policies on security, Islamism and immigration.

On Tuesday, the center-right daily Le Monde ran a headline declaring Macron was “blowing up” Les Républicains. The left-wing Libération ran a cartoon of Le Pen and Macron gobbling up the conservatives, below the headline of “2022, What will remain of the right?”

Macron has already weakened Les Républicains by stealing leading figures from their ranks and giving them top jobs in his government. Castex falls into this category, as does his predecessor Edouard Philippe, now mayor of Le Havre and one of France’s most popular politicians.

But Macron’s move to seek alliances with other parties is also a defensive play, as his party has struggled to build a local base and faces a trouncing in many places in the regional elections.

“En Marche risks losing quite significantly in the next elections. By backing [Les Républicains], they show that they are a dam against the far right,” said Zumsteeg. “And if the right-wing candidate wins, they can appear to be a key political actor, and say that they too won the elections.”

Muselier sought to downplay the significance of his deal with En Marche ahead of a meeting with party bosses Tuesday. “Nobody can doubt my loyalty towards my political party and I will ask them for their support,” he said on Monday.

On Tuesday evening, conservative heavyweights were locked in discussions in the party’s headquarters in Paris, desperately seeking to limit the damage done.

“It all depends on what Renaud Muselier wants,” said Pierre-Henri Dumont, an MP for Les Républicains. “There are conditions under which we would support [him]. But only if there are no ministers, nor en Marche members on his list of candidates.”

Dumont sought to portray Macron’s desire to strike alliances with his party as proof of the “vitality” of Les Républicains. But for many observers, the move was a sign of the conservatives’ weakness and a failure of party bosses to keep their election candidates under control.

Elisa Braun contributed to reporting

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