Valérie Pécresse, who heads the Ile-de-France region around Paris, has been chosen as the candidate of the conservative Les Républicains party in next year’s French presidential election.
Pécresse — who will try to win back the support that switched towards Emmanuel Macron at the last election while seeing off challengers from the far right — would become the country’s first woman president if she were to win in April.
“For the first time in its history, the party of General de Gaulle, of Georges Pompidou, of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy will have a female candidate to run for the presidential election,” Pécresse told cheering supporters.
LR party members picked Pécresse in a final round of primary voting at the weekend after she won pledges of support from other losing candidates and saw off Eric Ciotti, a member of the National Assembly from the south and the most rightwing of the LR contenders. She beat Ciotti by 61 per cent of the votes to 39.
Two of the initial favourites in the LR race, former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Xavier Bertrand, a regional leader from Hauts-de-France in the north, were knocked out early, shaking up analysts’ predictions ahead of the election in the spring.
Pécresse’s nomination signals the launch in earnest of the French campaign season.
All the main candidates except Macron himself have declared themselves, including Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National; Eric Zemmour, an independent anti-immigration polemicist whose sudden rise to prominence has been likened to that of Donald Trump; and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is trailing in opinion polls as the candidate for the Socialists.
Macron is expected to officially declare his re-election campaign in early 2022.
A former education and budget minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, Pécresse, 54, is regarded as a moderate in the LR. She has presented herself as an environmentalist, as well as a fiscal conservative, and pushed a strong law and order agenda.
Her programme includes cutting administrative jobs in France — although she has said she wants to pour more money into the justice system — and boosting salaries for lower income workers by reducing their social security payments.
On immigration, a fixation of the far-right candidates and one of the major campaign battlegrounds, Pécresse has said she would introduce quotas and toughen the asylum system.
Ciotti’s unexpectedly strong performance in the primary — he led after the first round — underlines the risk for Pécresse and the LR that the support of conservative republicans will bleed away to Zemmour and his radical defence of France as a Judeo-Christian culture that is supposedly under assault from mass Muslim immigration.
Pécresse made a nod to the increasingly strong far-right wing of her party, condemning violent crime, “the rise of Islamist separatism” and “uncontrolled immigration”.
“Together we will restore French pride and protect the French,” she said.
But whereas Ciotti on Saturday repeated his call for the party to champion “identity, authority and liberty”, Pécresse endorsed only the last two and pointedly replaced “identity” with “dignity”.
In her address, in which she tagged Macron as a “zigzag” president who shifted between right and left, Pécresse said she would take aim at the bureaucracy and public debt weighing down France in her view, and advocate “a less naive Europe.”
Macron, who sought to shake off traditional political tags when he came to power in 2017 and swayed voters from different side on a more centrist platform that was “neither right nor left”, has nonetheless encroached on conservative turf.
His push for reforms, including an overhaul of labour rules, earned him backing from many business leaders, and he profited in 2017 from the fall from grace of François Fillon, the LR candidate once seen as a shoo-in for the presidency, who was hit by an embezzlement scandal during the campaign.
Pécresse will be looking to recover some of those voters. Polls carried out before the results of the LR race had put her on about 11 per cent in the first round, at half the level of Macron in first place and well behind Le Pen and Zemmour. If she fails to improve on that score in the first vote in April, she will not qualify for the second round of the presidential election.
Pécresse sought to distance herself from the divisive and declinist views of extremist candidates such as Zemmour. “Contrary to the extremes, we will rip up the page of the Macron era without ripping up the history of France,” Pécresse said after winning the nomination.