By Ingrid Melander and Simon Carraud
PROVINS, France (Reuters) - France's main conservative party needs to go on the political offensive against President Emmanuel Macron by rediscovering a right-wing identity and increasing its appeal to National Front voters, its leader-in-waiting said.
Laurent Wauquiez, known for his euroskepticism and hardline opinions on immigration and security, has crossed swords with many top officials in his The Republicans (LR) party.
But his views and brash style have made the 42-year-old popular with the party's grass-roots and he is the clear leader in opinion polls to become LR's next head next month.
"We won't bring people together by being tepid," Wauquiez told Reuters in an interview after a party rally in Provins, south of Paris.
Saying France's conservatives had for too long fallen into the trap of being too moderate, he added: "Emmanuel Macron isn't doing the job."
Whoever takes over as the head of LR, currently under an interim leadership, will face the task of uniting a divided party that is struggling to make its voice heard in parliament where, while being the biggest opposition group, it has its fewest number of seats in decades.
LR was heavily favoured to win this spring's presidential election until the party imploded over financial scandals that embroiled its candidate, Francois Fillon.
It failed to make the election's second round, contested by centrist Macron and the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen, and was further weakened when the new president chose several of its top officials for his cabinet, including Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
MERKEL'S 'BIG MISTAKE'
Addressing Wednesday's rally, Wauquiez delighted an audience of some 300 LR supporters with calls to stop giving free basic health care to illegal migrants and criticism of French politicians' "naivety" over radical Islam.
Asked about the fact that these are Le Pen favourite themes, Wauquiez, who was first elected lawmaker at 29, said: "So if Marine Le Pen says it's night-time I should say it's day-time?
"Because the National Front (FN) talks about immigration I shouldn't? After the wave of attacks that have traumatized our country, the right shouldn't talk about Islamic fundamentalism?"
That was the trap the French right had fallen in to for too long as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "big mistake," he said.
Merkel's open-door policy on refugees was widely credited with causing her conservatives to bleed votes to the far-right
AfD party in a national election in September.
France's conservatives, meanwhile, are split over how to oppose Macron, whose economic policies coincide with what many of them stand for.
Wauquiez's critics within LR say his policies may be too close to those of the FN and warn they could leave the party if he crosses that line once elected party chief.
Wauquiez, a graduate of France's elite schools and a former minister under ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, says he is the voice of the "silent majority" and his critics have misunderstood him.
"My plan is simple," he said. "I want to reach out to those who have voted for the National Front but I would never strike any alliance with National Front officials."
Wauquiez's challenge will also be to convince LR voters who chose Macron for president -- and who pollsters say are now still backing him over his economic policies -- to return to the fold for the next election.
"Yes, the right has been knocked down. Yes, there are tensions as we are rebuilding ourselves, and that's normal after such a stinging defeat." Wauquiez said.
Calling the president's labour reforms a "sham". Wauquiez added: "There is another path than Emmanuel Macron's, that of a determined and unfazed right."
(Additional reporting by Noemie Olive; Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by John Stonestreet)