French opposition leader Wauquiez under fire over taped comments

PARIS (Reuters) - French right-wing opposition leader Laurent Wauquiez came under fire on Wednesday for taped comments in which he sniped at politicians in his own camp and government, often using rough language, prompting a senior party member to quit.

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The 42-year-old Wauquiez, president of the conservative Les Republicains, also mocked German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying she had no charisma, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he said, was too politically correct.

Wauquiez, whose party is the biggest opposition group in parliament, said in December when he was elected that he intended to make life difficult for centrist President Emmanuel Macron in parliament.

But his hardline views on immigration and Europe have already prompted several senior, moderate party officials including former prime minister Alain Juppe to take their distance from party policy since his election.

An opinion poll by Elabe for France’s BFM TV on Wednesday showed that 57 percent of people interviewed found his comments “shocking”.

The new controversy, now grabbing headlines across France, involves recordings broadcast by French TV TMC in which Wauquiez apparently seeks to impress business school students with “cool” language.

He names a senior politician in his party as always saying “stupid” things, adding that he himself often speaks “bullshit” in interviews. He resorted to sometimes crude terms in criticizing Macron’s lawmakers, the powerful employers’ groups, and other veterans in his party.

“When I heard Wauquiez’s comments I first thought he had tried to act as the ‘trash and cash’ cool big brother in front of the students and would later say he regretted his comments,” Dominique Bussereau, a former transport minister, told Reuters on Wednesday.

After Wauquiez told an evening TV show on Tuesday that he was standing by his comments in the name of free speech, Bussereau decided to quit Les Republicains.

“He (Wauquiez) has given a very right wing style to the party, flattering the grassroots. But if the party wants to win elections again one day, it needs to be able to attract a wide range of people and not focus on such a narrow line,” Bussereau said.

An EU lawmaker and a mayor in eastern France have also said they are quitting the party in protest at Wauquiez’s comments.

Wauquiez could be heard in one of the recordings telling the Lyon business school students that they would get in trouble if one of them leaked his comments.

Reporting by Ingrid Melander; and Simon Carraud; Editing by Richard Balmforth