France’s Conservative Leader Calls for Alliance With Far Right

The head of France’s mainstream conservative party on Tuesday called for an alliance with the far right in upcoming snap elections, throwing his party into deep turmoil as the shock waves from President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to dissolve the lower house of Parliament continue to course through French politics.

The announcement, by Éric Ciotti, the head of the Republicans, was a historic break with the party’s longstanding line and its ties to former President Charles de Gaulle. Mr. Ciotti’s call was immediately met with a chorus of angry disapproval from within his own ranks.

No leader of any mainstream French political party has ever previously embraced a possible alliance with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, or its predecessor, the National Front. But across Europe, barriers to what was long regarded as the extreme nationalist right have been falling as those parties adjust their positions and as a broader consensus forms that large-scale illegal immigration across a porous European Union border must be curbed.

The elections for the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of France’s Parliament, are scheduled for June 30 and July 7. Mr. Macron called them last week after his party suffered a bruising defeat in the European Parliament elections, gaining just 14.6 percent of the vote nationwide, compared with about 31.4 percent for the National Rally led by Ms. Le Pen’s protégé, Jordan Bardella. The Republicans fared even worse, with only 7.25 percent.

Mr. Bardella, 28, who became the new and widely popular face of French politics during the campaign for the European Parliament elections, welcomed Mr. Ciotti’s announcement and described it as “putting the interests of the French people before those of our parties.”

In an interview on TF1 television, Mr. Ciotti said on Tuesday that his party had become “too weak” to stand on its own and needed to make a deal with the National Rally to keep a sizable group of lawmakers in the lower house. The Republicans, a party that was long a dominant force in French politics under the presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, has only 61 lawmakers in the 577-seat National Assembly and could see those numbers dwindle even further.

If such a deal were formalized — with the National Rally agreeing not to run candidates against Republicans in certain districts — it would be the first time France’s center-right conservatives have worked in tandem with the far right. That would in turn make it more difficult for Mr. Macron to form any sort of coalition after the election that would keep Ms. Le Pen’s party from power.

“We need an alliance, while remaining ourselves,” Mr. Ciotti said. Later, asked by reporters at the party’s headquarters what had happened to the barrier that traditional parties in France usually erected around the far right, he demurred, calling the term “no longer appropriate” and “totally out of step with the situation in France.”

“The French don’t see the cordon sanitaire,” he said, referring to what was sometimes called a “dam” against the extreme right. “They see diminished purchasing power, they see insecurity, they see the flood of migrants, and they want answers. Mr. Macron has been unable for seven years to provide concrete answers, beyond mere words, so today I think we need to change method.”

Many high-ranking conservative politicians, who had warned against any alliance with the far right, immediately said it was unacceptable and called for Mr. Ciotti’s resignation.

Gérard Larcher, an influential Republican leader who is president of the French Senate, said that Mr. Ciotti “can no longer lead our movement.” Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, said Mr. Ciotti had “sold his soul.” Olivier Marleix, the top Republican lawmaker in the lower house, said Mr. Ciotti had to step down.

He has refused to do so, and it was not immediately clear how many Republican lawmakers might follow his lead and agree to work with the National Rally.

But the shock announcement could herald a split within Republican ranks — the latest sign that the steady advance of Ms. Le Pen’s party has left the mainstream parties that dominated postwar French politics scrambling for relevance.

The Republicans, who have undergone several name changes, can be traced back to the right-wing party founded by de Gaulle after World War II, a historical legacy that for years made any alliance with the far right anathema. De Gaulle, after all, fought and defeated the Vichy government that led France in collaboration with the Nazis from 1940 to 1944.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister who quit the Republicans in 2017 to join forces with Mr. Macron, said that Mr. Ciotti “has signed the Munich accords and driven the Gaullist family into dishonor,” a reference to the 1938 Munich Agreement that handed part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and led Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain to declare “peace for our time.” World War II broke out a year later.

“This is shameful. French people, wake up!” Mr. Darmanin added.

The Republicans’ party line has shifted increasingly rightward, especially on crime and immigration, over the past few years. It has become torn between those who favor an alliance with Mr. Macron’s centrists and those who want to lean further right.

Mr. Ciotti is a lawmaker representing Nice, where the far right has performed exceptionally well. The National Rally came out on top there last week with over 30 percent of the vote in the European elections, while the Republicans lagged in sixth.

In a flurry of messages on social media, Mr. Ciotti’s colleagues in the party quickly tried to characterize his announcement as a personal position, not the official line.

“Éric Ciotti speaks only for himself,” said Jean-François Copé, the mayor of Meaux and former minister who used to head the party. “He must resign immediately from the presidency of the Republicans, his praise of the extreme right is unacceptable and contrary to all the values we defend.”

Asked on Franceinfo radio what the next steps were, Florence Mosalini-Portelli, the party’s vice president, was blunt.

“We fire him,” she said of Mr. Ciotti.

That may sound simple, but Mr. Ciotti’s decision to open the door to the far right was not an act of pure personal whim. It reflects a significant current within his party, as well as the ongoing broader acceptance of the notion that the National Rally might one day legitimately govern France.

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