People wrote off France’s center right. But Valérie Pécresse’s presidential run may be another story

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Valérie Pécresse, now Les Républicains' presidential candidate, on Oct. 26. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/Reuters)
French President Emmanuel Macron greets Valérie Pécresse, now Les Républicains' presidential candidate, on Oct. 26. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/Reuters)

Emmanuel Macron has unofficially launched his campaign for the 2022 French presidential election. His victory in 2017 was, to many overseas observers, a welcome repudiation of Marine Le Pen’s far-right politics. Yet Macron’s success hinged on a collapse in support for France’s center-right party, Les Républicains (LR).

Where do things stand now? LR has struggled in recent years, as a corruption scandal engulfed its presidential candidate, François Fillon, and the party failed to find an identity under a succession of underwhelming leaders. But the party’s fortunes could be about to change after choosing Valérie Pécresse to be its presidential candidate.

Who is Valérie Pécresse?

Pécresse is little known outside France, although her selection as the first female presidential candidate of a party originally founded to support Charles de Gaulle is destined to raise her profile considerably. Her political stronghold is the Paris region, where she is the elected president of the regional assembly. She has ministerial experience and served for many years in the French Parliament — but without leaving much of a mark.

Her most notable policy stance was opposing same-sex marriage and adoption when the legislation came up for vote nearly a decade ago. To win the regional presidency, she moderated her position, accepting the same-sex marriage law while appeasing Catholic conservatives by promising to defund LGBTQ+ organizations.

Nevertheless, in the internal LR primary runoff vote, Pécresse clearly represented the liberal wing of her party. She has a record of standing firm against the far right, and she publicly supported Macron’s campaign against Le Pen in 2017.

Éric Ciotti, who surprised party bigwigs by winning the first round of voting, refused to support Macron in that election. His first-round success led to the elimination of the initial front-runner, Xavier Bertrand, and the candidate many believed would be LR’s choice, Michel Barnier.

A dispiriting selection battle

The internal vote to select LR’s presidential candidate took place after a primary campaign that failed to ignite the interest of most casual observers. But Pécresse did contribute to a drama-filled primary process for those who were paying attention.

For a start, she quit the party in 2019 and only formally rejoined in October. She was not alone in trying to make a break with a damaged brand: Bertrand had already played that card in 2017. Ciotti made much of his loyalty to LR through thick and thin, but accusations of betrayal did not seem to hurt Pécresse as they did Bertrand.

The rivals for the nomination battled each other in TV debates that revolved around the far-right party line on immigration. Ciotti took the most extreme position, calling for a “French Guantánamo” to detain suspected Islamist terrorists; he also refused to repent for failing to back Macron against Le Pen in the 2017 election.

It was no surprise that Bertrand and Barnier — defenders of what is known as “the republican right,” to distinguish its values from France’s far right — asked their supporters to rally behind Pécresse in the runoff vote.

The result was a comfortable majority of about 61 percent for Pécresse among the 110,000 or so LR party members who voted. Yet the willingness of nearly 40 percent of the party to support Ciotti suggests that much of France’s center-right party has moved further to the right.

There’s also a new face on the far right

Pécresse’s emergence as a contender for the presidency risks being overshadowed by the visibility of independent candidate Éric Zemmour. Over the summer, he dominated French headlines with his ethno-nationalist provocations. Though he lacks a party affiliation and only declared his candidacy on Nov. 30, his poll ratings overtook those of Le Pen in October.

Much of Zemmour’s success depends on Vincent Bolloré’s media empire. Bolloré is a Breton billionaire with controlling interests in major TV channels, radio and print media, outlets that have provided extensive coverage of Zemmour’s polemics.

In one film clip, Zemmour challenged a woman in a Parisian suburb to remove her headscarf. It later emerged that she was not local, and she used to work for the Bolloré Group, which owns the news channel — CNews, Zemmour’s former employer — that filmed the stunt.

A Catholic traditionalist, Bolloré is widely considered hostile to Macron — and not just for ideological reasons. Bolloré blames the French president for regulatory decisions that stymied his business plans. Although there are parallels between Bolloré’s support for Zemmour and the role played by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network giving free airtime to Donald Trump, there’s no reason to think that Bolloré’s support guarantees Zemmour electoral success.

Recent poll data suggests that support for Le Pen is back up, placing her above Zemmour. Without a formal party to back him, he also faces an uphill struggle to get on the ballot in April. By law, each candidate needs the written support of 500 elected officials to stand for the presidency.

Pécresse faces a long road to victory

Pécresse’s relatively low public profile belies her considerable political and technocratic skills. Like Macron, she is a graduate of the elite École nationale d’administration and, as she demonstrated in the LR primary campaign, a formidable debate opponent. Her sudden bounce in the polls shows what is possible if she manages to unify the center right.

Pécresse has her work cut out. France’s center right has remained weak since Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012. However, center-right candidates have won the presidency the most in modern times, and Pécresse has been careful to signal her Catholic credentials to capture what remains a key electoral base of the French right.

She needs to beat Le Pen, who still polls higher, to get into the runoff next year. (The first round of the election is scheduled for April 10, while the runoff is scheduled for April 24.) In a straight fight, Pécresse’s talents will make her a dangerous opponent for Macron, who ran circles around Le Pen in the 2017 TV debates. For now, Macron is by far the odds-on favorite to win reelection, but this time, he will need to pay extra attention to the threat from LR.

Andrew Glencross is associate professor of political science and deputy director for international affairs at ESPOL at the Catholic University of Lille.

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