Faced with two far-right rivals eating into her electorate, Valérie Pécresse, the newly appointed candidate hoping to lead France’s conservative Les Républicains to a presidential victory next year, has her work cut out even to scrape a place in the second-round run-off vote.
But Pécresse’s triumph in a party primary on Saturday — confounding predictions about the favourites, which included the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier — could change the course of the campaign and potentially dent Emmanuel Macron’s chances of an easy re-election in April.
A former minister for higher education and for the budget under Nicolas Sarkozy, and since 2015 head of the Île-de-France region that includes Paris, Pécresse has years of government experience. Analysts say her policies — tough on law and order and strong on fiscal discipline — could strike a chord with some of the more moderate conservative voters who flocked to Macron’s centrist, reformist platform in 2017.
Her nomination, following a five-way race that included some heavyweights, has also gone some way towards rehabilitating the LR as a political force. The movement — descended from the traditional rightwing in France incarnated by former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac — imploded at the last election when an embezzlement scandal derailed François Fillon’s campaign. It has since been plagued by internal rifts as supporters drifted away to the far right.
The long process of choosing Pécresse showed that a party that had been having a triple crisis — ideological, financial and over leadership — could organise itself by finding a “very legitimate” candidate supported by the losers in the primary, said Vincent Martigny, politics professor at Nice university.
The LR had never chosen a female candidate before, and could benefit from the more modern image provided by the selection of Pécresse, Martigny added.
The gap Pécresse has to close to catch up with other presidential candidates, even if she can keep a lid on party dissent, is still large, however.
The sudden rise in opinion polls of Eric Zemmour, an anti-immigration polemicist who has sparked comparisons to Donald Trump, had proved the main upset until now, potentially ripping up the long-predicted scenario of a rematch between Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National party, and Macron.
Both Zemmour and Le Pen have a chance of qualifying for the second-round run-off against Macron, recent polls have shown, whereas Pécresse has until now been limping along with support of about 11 per cent in the first-round vote, less than half of Macron’s forecast score.
One of Pécresse’s chief lines of attack will be to contrast her plainly rightwing views with Macron’s “neither right nor left” centrism. Pécresse has described Macron as “chameleonic”. Before cheering supporters on Saturday she labelled him a “zigzag” president who blows with the wind.
“I won’t compromise with the truth or avoid difficult questions. I won’t necessarily tell the French what they want to hear,” Pécresse told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in an interview.
Pécresse is considered a moderate within the LR movement and is notable for putting climate change and the environment at the heart of her campaign. Still, with Le Pen and Zemmour pushing the nation’s political agenda sharply to the right she has taken to decrying “uncontrolled migration” as something she would tackle with tougher rules for asylum seekers and quotas for immigration.
Pécresse is also a fiscal conservative, pledging to rein in public spending and cut 200,000 administrative jobs. She has stepped up attacks on Macron for “burning through cash”, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when — like other wealthy economies — France stumped up billions of euros to help struggling businesses and employees, and the health service.
“That will resonate with rightwing voters, who even if they thought Macron had done a good job on the economy, will have a classical reflex which is to think ‘this is all going to end up with higher taxes one day’,” said Bruno Cautrès, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, adding that Pécresse’s nomination was “not very good news” for Macron.
Macron came to power on a pro-business agenda and launched reforms, including a liberalisation of the labour market, early in his mandate, but he was also hit by large anti-government protests, in part over high living costs.
In her own political movement, Pécresse’s main challenge will be to deal with the rightwingers whose policies on immigration and law and order are close to those of Zemmour and Le Pen. She defeated the most rightwing of the LR contenders in the primary, Éric Ciotti, but he came top in the first round and still captured 39 per cent of the votes in the final. Ciotti has said he would vote for Zemmour in the event of an election run-off between Zemmour and Macron.
Zemmour and Le Pen have both pounced already. Zemmour called on LR members upset at Pécresse’s victory to join his first big election rally on the outskirts of Paris on Sunday.
“I share the disappointment of Éric and his followers,” Zemmour wrote in an open letter. “We are so close and we have so much in common!” Le Pen made a similar appeal, while condemning Pécresse as a “Macronist”.
In a gesture towards Ciotti — who said he would back the new LR candidate but immediately warned her that the presidency “will be won on the right” — Pécresse said she would kick off her presidential campaign in the southern village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, where he is an elected official.
She has at the same time taken a stand against the gloomy declinism of Le Pen and Zemmour, dismissing them in her acceptance speech on Saturday as divisive “merchants of fear” and declaring: “The republican right is back.”