January 9, 2019 / 2:01 PM / 5 months ago

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

PARIS (Reuters) - Two politicians including an ex-minister have left France’s mainstream centre-right party to join far-right leader Marine Le Pen after she dropped a demand for the country to quit the EU.

FILE PHOTO: French conservative party Les Republicains (LR or The Republicans) leader Laurent Wauquiez leaves after a meeting with French Prime Minister as the "yellow vest" nationwide protests continue, at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Thierry Mariani’s defection marks a coup for Le Pen as he is the most senior member of Les Republicains (LR) that her Rassemblement National (RN) party has poached.

“It’s an important event because its part of the reshaping of politics,” Le Pen said on Radio Classique.

The move also underscores the challenge faced by Les Republicains as the party tries to recover from President Emmanuel Macron’s emphatic national election win in 2017 and carve out its turf among a fragmented right.

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

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

Opinion polls place Le Pen’s party at about 21 percent, ahead of Macron’s Republique En Marche (LREM) party in voting intentions. LR are further back on about 13 percent.

Le Pen told Valeurs Actuelles magazine that France’s “yellow vest” protests had also exposed “convergences” of opinion between her party and the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed).

Both parties have supported the movement that has been protesting the high cost of living since mid-November, although Le Pen said they remain poles apart on immigration.

Les Republicains have become more closely aligned to the RN 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 LR last week by not renewing his membership.

“There is a drift towards theses that are very close to the extreme right, and an ambiguity about Europe that I am not comfortable with,” Juppe told a news conference in Bordeaux on Wednesday.

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.

Reporting by John Irish and Simon Carraud, additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Editing by William Maclean; editing by Richard Lough, William Maclean

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