By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - Laurent Wauquiez, a leading right-winger in France's divided The Republicans (LR), said on Sunday it was time the conservative party recovered from electoral defeats and unite to make their voice heard against centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
Wauquiez, 42, is the favorite to win the party leadership in December, with an anti-immigration and welfare stance that has earned him popular support but enemies among the LR elite.
"The Right is back! It's time to lift up our heads," the 42-year-old Wauquiez told supporters at a rally in central France where he heads the regional council.
LR was confident up to just a few months before the elections that it would win the presidency in May and parliament in June, but it imploded over candidate Francois Fillon's financial scandals.
Split over whether to back Macron, whose economic policies resemble what many have asked for years, LR is also divided over key issues including Europe and immigration, all of which is worsened by long-standing personal feuds.
"We must stand up and resist! France needs the right and must be able to count on a right that is really right-wing," said Wauquiez.
The conservatives did not make it to the second round of the presidential election and they have fewer seats in the lower house of parliament than they have had in decades, although theirs is the second-largest group behind Macron's.
Macron picked his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, and three ministers from the ranks of LR, further fuelling divisions within the party.
All this means LR has struggled to make its voice heard since Macron's election, while the far-left France Unbowed of Jean-Luc Melenchon, with only 17 lawmakers, has been very vocal.
"I cannot resign myself to accepting that Melenchon is the only opposition in France," Wauquiez said on Sunday.
While Virginie Calmels, a close ally of centrist Alain Juppe, joined Wauquiez at his rally, more heavyweight members of the moderate wing of LR have come out against him.
The head of the Paris region, Valerie Pecresse, told Le Journal du Dimanche that LR could blow up if Wauquiez is elected leader, warning against his possible "porosity" to the far-right National Front's (FN) ideas.
Thierry Solere, who is a member of LR but has set up a separate group in parliament, told BFM TV that Wauquiez would be the right's "grave-digger" and criticized him for refusing to call supporters to back Macron against FN chief Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.
Calmels said he had given her assurances that there would be no alliances with the FN and Wauquiez himself harshly criticized Le Pen at the rally.
There are so far four other candidates for the LR leadership, but Wauquiez is the only heavyweight.
(Additional reporting by Simon Carraud; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)