January 9, 2019 / 1:56 PM / 5 months ago

Ex-Sarkozy minister jumps conservative ship to join French far-right

PARIS, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Two French politicians, including an ex-minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, have left the country’s mainstream centre-right party to join far-right leader Marine Le Pen after she dropped a demand for France to quit the European Union.

The move underscores the challenge faced by Les Republicains (LR) as the party tries to recover from President Emmanuel Macron’s huge 2017 election win in the National Assembly and carve out its turf on a fragmented right.

Macron took votes from the centre-right, forcing the now LR leader Laurent Wauquiez further right as he seeks to regain momentum ahead of May’s European elections.

“Marine Le Pen represents the only true alternative to Macron,” Thierry Mariani, who served as transport minister between 2010 and 2012, told Le Parisien newspaper.

Les Republicains have become more closely aligned to the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), formerly Le Front National, on issues such as immigration and law and order. That has bolstered the appeal of Le Pen to some on the fringe of the mainstream party while also alienating more moderate figures.

Former prime minister Alain Juppe distanced himself from the party last week by not renewing his membership. He said he believed it was Macron who was going in the right direction.

Defecting alongside Mariani was former conservative lawmaker Jean-Paul Garraud. The far-right presented both on Wednesday as candidates to run on its ticket in May’s European election.

Opinion polls place Le Pen’s party at about 21 percent, ahead of Macron’s Republique En Marche (LREM) party in voting intentions for the European Parliament elections. LR, led by Laurent Wauquiez, are further back at about 13 percent.

“Those who are pro-sovereignty, those opposed to the excesses of immigration, are today choosing the nationalists amid the current division between the nationalists and the globalists,” le Pen told Radio Classique. (Reporting by John Irish, Editing by William Maclean; editing by Richard Lough, William Maclean)

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