1 March 2022

Is there a way back for French conservatism?

By Fanni Korpics

Conservative political forces have won elections convincingly in Hungary, Poland, Bavaria and Austria in recent years – and the Tories have been electorally dominant in the UK for a decade. At the same time, in France, the opposite has happened, and the establishment conservative party, Les Républicains,  has collapsed – from striding the world stage under Nicolas Sarkozy, the party now has fewer than 20% of seats in the National Assembly. What went wrong?

In some ways, it is a confusing picture. Electoral results across Europe show that people long for conservative solutions that can address challenges such as mass and irregular immigration, the effects of climate change, or the perceived erosion of Western culture and values.

Why have French conservatives failed to grasp this moment, and what do they need to do to topple Emmanuel Macron’s centrist-liberal coalition?

Firstly, expanding the voter base is critical. In the UK, working class communities in the Red Wall are voting conservative for the first time. In Hungary, a similar shift has taken place – rural areas and small towns and villages have been won over to conservative values. In Austria, values voters and business elites have formed an unlikely but durable conservative coalition. The French right, on the other hand, has failed to reach beyond its traditional base.

Second, recognising that values and culture are a concern for many communities. Hungary’s governing Fidesz party has deftly handled the highly sensitive immigration debate. Together with Poland, they created a Central European conservative hub that today incorporates Italian, Bavarian and Austrian political forces as well. These parties share other popular policies, such as support for families in an effort to reverse the region’s worrying demographic decline. Alongside signals on immigration, the high-profile campaigns by Tory ministers to ‘protect free expression’ and push back against ‘cancel culture’ are clear examples of speaking to ‘values voters’.

French conservatism currently lacks this focused and disciplined approach. There is not enough time before the election to change – but with Marine Le Pen faltering, there is an opportunity for the Républicain, Valérie Pécresse, to at least reach the second round. Le Pen has fallen ten points in a matter of months and now sits on 17%, only two points ahead of Pécresse. The right-wing iconoclast Eric Zemmour lies a further point behind. If Pécresse can convert her party’s sometimes abstract values into concrete policy measures, she may be able to squeeze into the run-off, and start the climb back to respectability for the French right. (Any dreams of actually winning office are just that – dreams. All polling shows Macron beating Pécresse by a wide margin in the run-off race).

Better family policies would be a strong place to start. In Hungary, several concrete measures have also been introduced ranging from tax exemptions for mothers having four or more children, to the establishment of new childcare facilities. Married couples with children can apply for subsidised loans and mortgages. Poland has introduced similar incentives to encourage young people to start a family.

It is true that France already spends a considerable amount of its national budget on family policy, yet the fertility rate remains low. While in France family policy mostly involves childcare aid for families, in Hungary for example, the government facilitates the acquisition of property which adds to a perception of stability highly needed in today’s societies. Supporting the access of newlyweds and young families to get on the property ladder might prove a lot more profitable in the long run than simply just providing aid

It is a delicate balance. Conservative parties around Europe must find a way to balance declining demographic trends, by proposing pro-family policies, but also respecting the electorate’s wish to restrict illegal and irregular immigration. The demand by the EU Commission, at the height of the migrant crisis, that countries should be forced to accept migrants against their sovereign wishes, could have been a rallying cry for strong but sensible conservative leadership in France. It has not happened.

There is a lot for Les Républicains to learn from the British example, and indeed from others across the EU. It is no surprise that candidates have planned to visit London, Budapest and elsewhere – Eric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, and President Emmanuel Macron have all done so in recent months.

It is strange that Mme Pécresse has not yet tapped into this well of expertise – learning from those on the right who are actually winning elections is surely a sensible idea for the Républicains as they look to end their losing streak. It looks to be too late for a miracle to happen this time, but it is never too early to start.

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Fanni Korpics is a Research Fellow at the Danube Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.