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Valérie Pécresse won’t save France Her cheerful toughness won't bring change

Bon chic, bon genre (Chesnot/Getty Images)


December 8, 2021   7 mins

A decade ago, I used to walk with my daughters to their convent school just outside the western border of Paris proper. Little by little, streams of cheerful, determined girls would join us on bikes or on scooters or on foot. As we drew nearer to the school, the streams would turn into rivers. “I didn’t know there were so many girls in the world,” my younger daughter once said.

The girls were well turned-out; many of them came from the kind of well-heeled or intellectual families once called “BCBG” — bon chic, bon genre — living in the western arrondissements of Paris. Others came from Neuilly-sur-Seine, the richest commune in France, just outside the city boundary (where Nicolas Sarkozy was once the mayor).

Whenever I see Valérie Pécresse I think of those walks. She has the same cheerful, determined, understated “BCBG” look. That is hardly a surprise; she was educated at that same convent school as my daughters.

The dual aim of Sainte-Marie de Neuilly is to turn out faithful and traditional Catholics girls but also tough, intelligent young women capable of competing with men in a men’s world. My non-French daughters hated it for the most part, but it educated them well.

Pécresse, 54, now stands at the entrance to a labyrinth which could lead her next year to win a competition which no French woman has ever won: to be President of the Republic. Last weekend, she became the first woman to be chosen as presidential candidate for the French centre-right, the political family of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ten years ago ,that would have made her one of the favourites, even the favourite, to be the next President. But life is more complicated now — and it is growing more complicated by the day: part of the centre-right has emigrated to President Emmanuel Macron, while other sections have shifted to two far-Right candidates, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.

Meanwhile, Pécresse — who has been President of the greater Paris region, Ile-de- France, since 2015 — is little known outside the Paris area; and Paris is not liked in the rest of France. Before she won a closed primary of the main centre-right party, Les Républicains, on Saturday she was running a poor 4th in the national opinion polls on 8 to 10% of support for the first round of the presidential election on 10 April.

But two post-primary polls in recent days have boosted her to 14% and 17% respectively. In other words, she is already pushing for a place, ahead of her two far-Right rivals, in the two-candidate second round on 24 April.

The election is, of course, still a long way away. Opinion polls bounces come and go. Just ask Eric Zemmour, who is sinking steadily after surging from 0% to 19% in the Autumn. The only exception to this rule seems to be President Macron, who continues to float serenely ahead of the pack on 23 to 25%.

All the same, Macron and his chieftains and supporters are worried. They are confident that the President would beat either Le Pen or Zemmour if they reached the second round. They are far less certain that he would beat Pécresse.

They know fully well that she appeals to a chunk of the electorate which dislikes Macron and would like a change, albeit not too much change. The prospect of a woman as President would, in itself, appeal to the perpetual French dissatisfaction with incumbents; there has been no female leader in France since the regent Marie de Médicis four centuries ago.

Pécresse, though more socially conservative and fiscally stringent than Macron, would also be more acceptable in a run-off to parts of the French Left — simply because she is not Macron.

But can she reach Round Two? Ultimately, in the first round, some of her advantages become handicaps.

A large part of the wider French Right and even her own party want radical change on crime, migration and Europe. Pécresse may be more socially conservative than Macron: she was once a leading figure in a movement to try to block gay marriage, though she now accepts “marriage for all” should not be challenged. But the French Right regard Pécresse, correctly, as a continuation of the centrist consensus which has survived, with a few twists and turns, from Chirac through Sarkozy, François Hollande and Macron.

And unlike Le Pen and Zemmour, Pécresse is a typical product of the French political elite. After jumping two classes at Sainte-Marie-de-Neuilly and gaining the top mark in the baccalauréat at the age of 16, she went to a leading business school and to the elite civil service college Ecole Nationale d’Adminisration (ENA). She then taught at the leading political school, Science-Po. She is pro-European and pro-business. She is married to an engineer-turned-senior-businessman and has three children.

As a result, the response by harder-line Républicains or by Zemmouristes to her victory at the weekend was brutal. They called her a “girouette” (weather-vane), “Valérie Princesse”, “Valérie Traitresse” and “Macron in a skirt”.

Perhaps anticipating this, Pécresse promised in her acceptance speech to be a new kind of President: one who would break with the past and keep promises. She also emphasised that, unlike Le Pen and Zemmour, she was capable of winning on 24 April and “turning the page on Macron”.

In truth, she will struggle in the next four months to keep her own party together, let alone unite the wider French Right. Even her acceptance speech was publicly criticised by the man she crushed 61-39% in the second round of Les Républicains’ primary.

Eric Ciotti, who represents Nice in the French national assembly, is closer in most respects to the views of Zemmour and Le Pen on Islam and migration than those of Pécresse. He complained that her victory oration omitted his most eye-catching proposal: a French Guantanamo for suspected Islamist radicals and an end to the “droit du sol” — the right to French citizenship of anyone born on French soil.

In response, Pécresse again rejected both those ideas but promised that Ciotti would be a big part of her campaign; her first visit was to his village in the mountains above Nice. It was a shrewd move and her political skills should certainly not be underestimated. Pécresse says she is “two parts Angela Merkel and one part Margaret Thatcher”. She is not, she says, une dame de fer (iron lady) like Thatcher but une dame de faire (a woman who gets things done).

Yes, she was given little chance by pundits (including this one) of winning the five-candidate primary last week. But she proved herself with talent and cunning.

The number of Les Républicains party members zoomed from 80,000 to 140,000 in the weeks before the vote as “sympathisers” handed over €30 in annual party dues. All five candidates had encouraged supporters, in effect, to buy votes. The Pécresse camp, with the enormous population of greater Paris behind it, “bought” the most (quite legally). And it undoubtedly had an impact: she beat the favourite, the former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, by only 1,200 votes in Round One to go forward in second place to round two.

Yet there were other factors, too. In the four televised primary debates, Barnier looked tired and grouchy; Ciotti slick and passionate. Pécresse, meanwhile, was calm, fluent and well-drilled. She appealed to the party’s hard Right wing by proposing two constitutional changes to make it easier for France to block migration and deal with radical Islam. She shone like a beacon in a deep pink jacket among the shiny dark suits.

But now comes the real campaign. And this is where her troubles could begin.

One way to look at this election is that France, like Gaul under Julius Caesar, has been divided into three parts. The Left — remember them? — still commands just under 30% of the votes. They are divided, irretrievably it appears, between seven different candidates: two Trotskyists, a Communist, two Socialists, a Green and the hard-left nationalist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. None, at present, has more than 11% of the vote. They are unlikely to get near the top four, never mind the top two, in the first round.

There is then a wide band of pro-European, pro-business, centre and centre-right — in effect politics as usual — candidates, taking in Macron but also Pécresse. They have maybe 30% to 40% support.

Finally, there is a chunk of just over 30% of far-Right and hard-Right voters who want to turn everything on its head. They are anti-European, ultra-nationalist and anti-migrant. They detest what they see as a Left-tinged media consensus against strong action to reduce European power, end migration, tackle crime and shackle Islam (not just radical Islamism). They include the supporters of Le Pen and Zemmour, but also a big slice of members and voters of Les Républicains — two-fifths of them judging by the result of last Saturday’s primary.

Eric Ciotti has said that, faced with a choice between Macron and Zemmour in Round Two, he would vote for Zemmour. Yet in 2017, Pécresse voted for Macron rather than Le Pen. She left Les Républicains two years later because she said they were drifting towards the far-Right, and only rejoined just before the primary. In other words, she and Ciotti are in the same party but not in the same ideological “third” of France.

To win next April, then, Pécresse has to persuade many hard-Right and far-Right voters to take another chance on a mainstream politician who says that she shares their anger and fears. She needs, above all, the Zemmour bubble to burst, but not to burst too much; she needs his supporters who have abandoned Le Pen to stay with him. Otherwise, Le Pen will return to an unassailable first round position, just behind Macron.

At the same time, Pécresse needs to reclaim some of the moderate, pro-European centre-right voters who now support the President. That will be difficult if she is also to make a full-blooded pitch to the Ciotti-Zemmour-Le Pen third of France.

Her BCBG cheerful toughness will appeal to some voters. It will enrage others. If she can find a way to balance all those things — and that is a big ask — the race for second place in the first round on 10 April could be a three-way tie until the finishing line. It could be decided by just a handful of votes. If Pécresse has those votes, she could beat Macron two weeks later.

What would that change in France? Not much. Pécresse would bring a change of style. She would be marginally tougher than Macron on migration. She would be less ambitious about France’s role in Europe and Europe’s role in the world.

But the fundamentals would change little. The deep political divisions in France would persist; they might even deepen. The real battle for the soul of France is coming — but probably not until 2027.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

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Jeffrey Chongsathien
JC
Jeffrey Chongsathien
2 years ago

Zemmour is “far right”? Give me a break.

JP Martin
JM
JP Martin
2 years ago

This is a badge of honour when you compare to the far left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Sandrine Rousseau, etc).

Peta Seel
PS
Peta Seel
2 years ago

I do wish reporters would stop describing both Le Pen and Zemmour as “far right” because in fact, neither are. Apart from her policies on immigration and security Le Pen is more far left than far right as a cursory glance over her economic policies would reveal. Zemmour is right wing as opposed to centre right, that is all.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Peta Seel

The world today is leaning so far to the left that anyone standing up straight seems to be leaning to far right. Like going down an escalator and watching the people coming up towards you. An optical illusion.

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
2 years ago

The deep political divisions in France would persist; they might even deepen. The real battle for the soul of France is coming — but probably not until 2027.
That’s not surprising given the deeply divided French electorate (as summarized in this article). It appears whoever is elected President this time will not have support of a solid majority of the French people and so will constantly be on the defensive.
Recently Aris Roussinos wrote in Unherd that the overall trajectory of French politics is to the right. I wonder if the author of this article would agree with that assessment and its implications for the 2027 election?
If France is headed right what does that mean for its relationship with that other EU stalwart, Germany, which seems to be leaning left–or perhaps that is only a passing phase?
How the enemies of the West must be rubbing their hands in glee at the sight of all this division.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Does Germany, I wonder, have a “droit du sol”? It might seem a superfluous feature of the law within the context of the EU. The proposal to end the right to citizenship for those born in a country might, however, become a litmus test, in politics, in terms of France’s settled picture of itself in the coming years.

Patrick Fox
Patrick Fox
2 years ago

Well the introduction of this typical article by JL and its usual string of ad nausea platitudes on french politics has at least revealed what I have been saying for sometime now that JL is a full fledge member of this self proclaimed well to be bourgeois woke Parisian elite who despise any person outside Paris intra-muros considering them as not being able to understand and analysis for themselves because not being on an intellectual par with them. At least I will not have to come back on this in the future ( it is most certainly a great relief for you who take the time to read my comments)

Once stripped off of all JL’s unhelpful bla bla much of his plagiarisms of the analysis made in the french press cannot be argued against, so much for a personal analysis which purpose should be to bring some added value to its readers.

Pécresse being branded a traitor, turn coat and others is not the sudden making of so called “ harder- line Republicains or by Zemmouristes” triggered by her victory at the weekend. They are just repeating what the Republicains from all sides baptised her when she unsurprisingly left the party in 2019 (like Xavier Bertrand in 2017) on the pretext of renovating the french right, so much for this . She only rejoined a few weeks ago to run for the primary election. In people’s books this is a clear stigma demonstrating what you can expect from someone with such firmness of character and political stances , the ideal Macron like leader.

Her first visit to Ciotti’s village is according to JL a” shrewd move” and hence her political skills should certainly not be underestimated. Wrong once again, both Ciotti and Pécresse , under the insistence of the party’s leadership , had agreed before the second round that the winner would first visit the looser’s political seat and then that of the other 3 defeated in the first round and this in order to demonstrate the unity of the party behind the winner. Nothing of Pécresse’s exclusive demonstration of political skills rather a party decision if they want to keep the shadow of a chance to pass the presidential election’s first round.

And to finish the usual JL’s attacks on the far right and hard right but as I said in a previous comment he is indécrottable. The only conclusion anyone can draw from JL’s present written eructations is that France will only change once it rids itself of those Baldrick like racist, anti muslim, anti EU and security blood thirsty french “far” “hard”, “ extreme”, “ fascist”, “ignorant” and ……. ( please have your pick) right wingers living outside the western arrondissements of Paris and Neuilly where JL had the privilege to securely be able to walk his daughters to a catholic private school not a choice afforded by many french families living in the « banlieues ». A fine example of what is known as “La Gauche Caviar” or radish like socialists red on the outside white inside.

Last edited 2 years ago by Patrick Fox
Tom Watson
TW
Tom Watson
2 years ago

“The number of Les Républicains party members zoomed from 80,000 to 140,000 in the weeks before the vote as “sympathisers” handed over €30 in annual party dues. All five candidates had encouraged supporters, in effect, to buy votes. The Pécresse camp, with the enormous population of greater Paris behind it, “bought” the most (quite legally). And it undoubtedly had an impact: she beat the favourite, the former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, by only 1,200 votes in Round One to go forward in second place to round two.”
For all the talk of Merkel and Thatcher, it’s Clinton she most reminds me of.

David McDowell
DM
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Or Bliar or Obarmy, almost anyone but Merkel or Thatcher.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Two parts Angela Merkel, one part Margaret Thatcher: a Macron variant.

One part Angela, two parts Maggie: a Macron-very-much-not?

JP Martin
JM
JP Martin
2 years ago

Considering the repeated criticisms that she is not authentic, this was a remarkably stupid comment. It just reinforces the idea that she is a manufactured product and you need to check the label for ingredients.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

I just took the quoted comment as meaning that Angela is twice the lady that Maggie was. A piece of virtue-signalling at the Iron Lady’s expense.

JP Martin
JM
JP Martin
2 years ago

I meant Pécresse’s comment, not yours! Sorry if I was not clear – I was endorsing your remarks.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Good grief!

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago

Lichfield addles the brain of even the best.

David McDowell
DM
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

This is one of Litchfield’s better offers!

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

« two parts Angela Merkel and one part Margaret Thatcher”. She is not, she says, une dame de fer (iron lady) like Thatcher but une dame de faire (a woman who gets things done). »
people should be seriously scared. How much more schizophrenic can one be ?
what strikes me is that having won the republican primary…..it is as if she won the election.
She will get creamed…..she sounds, acts like Francois Fillon and no one needs that.
If only Macron understood the need the French have to rekindle with their culture, their need for law and order all the while staying Europeans at heart, he would be elected in an armchair.

JR Stoker
JS
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

The essential fact of the Merkel years is that she got nothing done, surely. Seems like a media aimed throw away phrase that had not been thought through.

Last edited 2 years ago by JR Stoker
Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Thing is, French are not one bit interested in what foreign media have to say and Merkel has a very good image here…..as opposed to Macron who is everything she is not.
The association of powerful German economy with Merkel s image paints a picture of sturdy, reliable Germany when in fact the country is far from being rosy. Have a look at how the pandemic is managed, people queuing to be vaccinated and having then to run to the pharmacy to get a QR code. The level of digitalisation in Germany is pathetic, roads and bridges will be as marrode Brücke oder Strassen described and in many places they are.
This schwarz null obsession on the budget is like us sitting on a pile of cash and refusing to repair the roof, buckets lying on the floor.
As to Thatcher……I’ll hold by bile only to remark that the Falkland war was very very gutsy.
No way Mrs Precresse would have the guts to such a statement. As to Merkel, she sat comfy in Berlin leaving the dirty job in Mali to the French.
Macron will be re-elected in the end because he will just appear as the least pathetic option……what a prospect.

JP Martin
JM
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

In total agreement – both schizophrenic and synthetic, it suggests a person with no real sense of self. It also bothered me that she chose two foreign female politicians as her role models. This is a deeply stupid choice that borders on unpatriotic. It also has a touch of US-style woke identity politics that many, like me, find contemptible and nauseating. Couldn’t she find anyone in the history of France that inspires her?

Giles Chance
GC
Giles Chance
2 years ago

Macron will win.

Patrick Fox
Patrick Fox
2 years ago

What amazes me since Zemmour (Z) appearance on the French political scene is the sudden but not so surprising amnesia displayed by mainstream medias and commentators like John Lichfield (JL). What I mean by this is that the recent devilish Rassemblement National (RN)/ former Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen miraculously appears mainstream compatible.

This is not surprising when you know that this directly serves the interest of Jupiter/Macron, this is how he pulled it in 2017, because lets be realistic he was elected by default not by choice and he intends to do the same again in 2022, so much for “democracy” a word I find more and more difficult to fathom today as it is systematically misused, debased and abused and thus emptied of any of its original meaning. The same goes with the word fascist if you do not think like me you are a fascist and thus I do not need to argue with you (usually because I am incapable of doing so).
So when activists or mainstream media call someone far, extreme or hard right we all know they are referring to the word fascist and agitating the spectre of that Austrian guy with the squared moustache and long hair fringe known to be a socialist who happened to also be a nationalist living in Germany , it rarely refers to the baldy Italian guy who was not evil enough to fit the needed purpose and this despite being at the origin of said word.

Well today Z and to a similar extent Ciotti are the new fascists in town , Z is the racist, Z is the populist, Z is the Muslim hater and the RN, — this androgynous party with its socialist agenda (both in terms of economy and social policies) and nationalist stance ( the term nationalist being another debatable one nowadays if I would dare compare that of RN with for example that of Sinn Féin in Ireland the latter an openly socialist if not more and nationalist party)— slipping in the glittering armour of Joan of Arc to which it shows a particular devotion, is the party who is going to rid France of this Z “vermin” with a “little help” from the John Lichfield’s of this world and their god Jupiter.

This perception forced on the public by the media totally obliterates the reality of the situation. First Z ‘s « Reconquête » party from an economic standpoint is anchored to the shores of the liberal right not socialist like that of the RN. Second having listened to Z’s inaugural speech, previous interviews and television and radio programs and then going to the RN’s manifestoes and speeches over the years, I am much more reassured by Z’s positioning than that of RN’s in terms of tolerance and open mindedness towards legal immigrants and muslims in France who are genuinely willing to embrace and accept what is called France’s way of life ( something execrable to the Nowheres ) and laïcité. The same requirements have been applied for years to immigrants to Canada, Australia and many other countries without provoking a blink from the numerous members of the congregation of the doctrine of the faith of the pontificating woke do gooders.

Entering the french political arena Z needs to capture the attention of the French and he is playing on a very present and sensitive chord in a country which,despite some Nowhere’s attempts to make us believe the opposite, is still profoundly attached to traditional values and images ( one just needs to follow the lunchtime news on french TV channel TF1 to be convinced ) that Macron himself opportunistically makes use of when cornered by his own reckless decisions or abusive verbal immature school yard outbursts. So let us not be surprised by Z’s patriotic historical references and the tone with which he expresses them ( at least he is not suffering from cultural deficiency a rare quality in french politicians since Mitterand and previously de Gaulle and Pompidou). As we say in France “on n’ attire pas les mouches avec du vinaigre” ( you don’t catch flies with vinegar”) after all it is a political competition.

So, if by reference to the standards of acceptability and definitions established by the mainstream medias pundits and commentators like JL when it comes to qualifying people as hard, extreme or far right ( and we all know they mean fascists please see above), Z is certainly on the right but not as extreme as the RN but he and now Pécresse to a certain extent are certainly complicating Jupiter’s cunning re-election plan .When it will come for Macron to obtain a majority in the June 2022 general elections , it could well turn out,based on the recent results of his party LREM in the last local elections, that he has no majority in parliament . This would clearly display the nothingness of his political project if he ever had one. But he is a self-centred opportunist cold blooded chameleon ( with psychopathic traits I am told) and this would not affect him the least as far as he remains president up to 2027.

If he wins, Pécresse —with the complicity of some of her Les Republicains aficionados — who displays the same ego and opportunistic trait will certainly cuddle up to him and once more jump ship in the hope of becoming Prime Minister and then who knows President in 2027. But this is forgetting the “Horizons” party recently launched by Macron’s subservient former prime minister Edouard Philippe another defector of Les Republicains who , like Pécresse ( although for her it was another opportunistic last minute ship jumping exercise in the 2017 presidential election and some people are surprised she is labelled a traitor) , supported Alain Juppé , is able to muster up sufficient seats to give Jupiter a majority and position himself for the presidential election of 2027.

But lets take one presidential election at a time and first await to see if Z will gather the required 500 signatures ( from maires, mps … ) to be able to run. If he doesn’t then questions will have to be addressed on this practice of having the nominative list of the persons having given their signatures to a potential candidate made public .
The fear of political pressure or retaliatory actions is thus vividly present in their minds as they can rightly believe they could be publicly branded as fascist by the same crowds I referred to earlier. Therefore taking the step necessitates a lot of political courage ,a rarity in politics nowadays unless of course the main parties for tactical reasons find an interest in encouraging them to do so. So much for political democracy!!

Last edited 2 years ago by Patrick Fox