It took until her victory speech for Valérie Pécresse to flaunt one of her most obvious assets. She hadn’t previously made much of her gender, standing against four men to be the centre-right Republican party’s first ever female candidate for president of France. But at the podium on 4 December she allowed herself a little pride in the symbolism of “the party of the General de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy… nominating une candidate for the presidential election”.
Pécresse, 54, will face a wide range of rivals in the first round of voting for the election next April, including Emmanuel Macron; the National Rally leader, Marine Le Pen; the far-right independent candidate, Eric Zemmour; and leader of the left-wing France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Polls have tightened in recent months, meaning a runoff round pitting Macron against Le Pen – long expected – is now viewed as less likely.
Few expected Pécresse, the president of the Île-de-France region, to win the Republican nomination. Pécresse was dismissed as a lightweight compared to Xavier Bertrand, also a regional president, or Michel Barnier, the former chief Brexit negotiator. Yet both were eliminated in the first round of voting by 110,000 party members. In the second round, she defeated Éric Ciotti, a hard-right MP who makes no secret of his proximity to Zemmour.
Pécresse’s selection is the culmination of a long career of a woman viewed as one of the most capable operators on the centre-right. Those close to Macron did not expect it and see her as a serious threat to his chances of re-election. Could the woman who styles herself as “two-thirds Merkel, one-third Thatcher” become France’s first female president?
Pécresse was born in 1967 in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. A gifted student, she was 16 when she passed her baccalaureate (usually taken at 18). She spent two summers in the Soviet Union, learning Russian in communist youth camps. “I retained the idea that nonconformism is more a value of the right than of the left,” she later said of her time in the USSR.
Her academic career reads like a roll-call of France’s elite institutions. She first studied at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales, France’s most prestigious business school, and later attended the École Nationale d’Administration, the traditional finishing school for the civil service. She graduated second in her year.
After working as a civil servant, in 1997 she entered politics as an adviser to President Jacques Chirac. He had just misjudged a decision to call a snap election for the National Assembly, which led to a left-wing victory. “Some of my colleagues told me it was professional suicide – the left would be in power for 20 years more,” she recalled. She rose rapidly through the ranks of the centre-right, becoming an MP in 2002.
After Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007, Pécresse was appointed minister for higher education. She held her nerve against student protests over controversial reforms to the university system. In 2014, with the Socialist François Hollande as president, she became the first female leader of Île-de-France, a region that includes Paris as well as rich suburbs and poor banlieues. Pécresse took a notably moderate tone, highlighting her feminism and emphasising that she was attracted to Gaullism – the patriotic, conservative strain in French politics named after the Second World War leader Charles de Gaulle – for its focus on social justice. In 2017 she even left the Republicans, forming her own political movement to protest the party’s rightward tilt.
As she began to eye the Élysée, she shifted to the right to appeal to a Republican party membership in no mood for moderation, particularly on immigration and identity issues. A list of policies on her website is simply titled “stop immigration”, though her proposals would do nothing of the sort.
Cracks have already begun to emerge in the party. Éric Ciotti has launched “To the Right”, what he terms a “movement” intended to pressure Pécresse to adopt the hardline policies he advocated during the primary. “[Pécresse’s] message is not the right one,” Ciotti said the day after the primary result.
Pécresse’s opponents to her right are relishing the divisions within her party. In a letter to Ciotti’s supporters, Zemmour wrote that Ciotti is “unquestionably a patriot, loyal to the convictions we both share”. At his first official campaign rally on 5 December, which was marked by violence against anti-racism protesters, Zemmour reiterated his call for supporters of Ciotti to join him.
Pécresse will have difficulty distinguishing herself from Macron, whose liberal economics convinced many traditional right-wing voters to back him at the last election. Her more conservative positions on social issues may win back some of them, but she remains a pro-European economic liberal – not too different from the president himself.
Moreover, her stance on immigration and identity may prove too tough for centrist Macron voters and not tough enough for those tempted by Zemmour or Le Pen. Though polls indicate that the French electorate is more right-wing today than at any point in postwar history, it does not necessarily follow that Pécresse’s centre-right, squeezed between Macron and the far-right, will benefit next April.
Yet Valérie Pécresse has several advantages. She is the most credible female candidate for president since Ségolène Royal in 2007, which may help her present as a modernising force just as Macron’s youth benefited him in 2017. Her rhetoric on immigration may be harsh but she will appear moderate in comparison to Le Pen and Zemmour. “I will be the first female president of France,” she predicted in her primaries victory speech. It remains a long shot – but little in French politics has, in recent times, played out as expected.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special