December 3, 2021 - 3:00pm

The French centre-Right loves to surprise itself. It also has a history of shooting itself in the foot. 

The main centre-Right party Les Républicains, long the dominant force in the land, risks disintegration if it fails to unite and perform well in April’s presidential election.  

As the LR president Christian Jacob likes to say, the French centre-Right has to learn — unfortunate phrase — to “keep all the frogs in the same wheelbarrow” .

How did 113,000 LR members vote in the first round of the party’s primary yesterday? They jumped four ways, split evenly between four candidates.

The former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, the overwhelming favourite a month ago, came third with 23.83% and was eliminated by 1,200 votes. Xavier Bertrand, the president of the northern French region Hauts-de-France, the most popular candidate with the wider French public, came just behind Barnier on 22.36%.

Top of the poll with 25.59% was Eric Ciotti, the hard-Right parliamentarian for Nice, the centre-Right candidate who is least popular (by far) with voters nationwide. Ciotti’s opinions on Islam, immigration and security (he doesn’t have opinions on much else) are similar to those of the far-Right candidates already in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.

And then in second place, and into tomorrows’ final round against Ciotti, came a woman who had largely been ignored by the punditry and commentariat (me included). 

Valérie Pécresse, 54, president of the greater Paris region, Ile- de-France, who scored 25%, is now the overwhelming favourite to be chosen as the Républicains candidate tomorrow afternoon. She has the backing of all the defeated candidates.

She would be the first woman to lead the political family of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy into a presidential election. If the centre-Right can unite behind her, she has a chance of taking one of the top two places in the first round of the election proper on 10 April.

If she reaches the run-off on 24 April, she would have a reasonable chance — more so than either Le Pen or Zemmour — of beating President Emmanuel Macron and becoming the first woman to lead France since the regent, Marie de Médicis in the early 17th century.

But that is a lot of “ifs”. Pécresse lacks fire but she is competent, calm and eloquent. She was the most impressive performer in the four televised debates held before this week’s centre-Right primary. Barnier spoiled his chances by coming over as grouchy and lacking in energy.

Pécresse is, however, detested by the harder-line members of the LR party who voted in droves this week for the red-meat opinions on security and Isam of Eric Ciotti. 

They call her “Valérie Traitresse” because she left the party when it swung to the Right in 2017 and only rejoined this autumn, just before the primary. They accuse her of being a “Macron-in-a-skirt”, pro-European, too consensual, allegedly soft on migration and crime.

There is, in truth, little difference between Pécresse and the many centre-Right politicians who deserted the LR for Macron’s government after his victory in 2017. Other centre-Right barons have thrown in their lot with the President in recent weeks, including Chistian Estrosi, the influential mayor of Nice (and implacable enemy of the local MP, Eric Ciotti).

If Pécresse wins tomorrow, as she should, the harder-line members and wider electorate of the LR will be faced with a choice between a) their gut convictions and b) supporting a candidate who could oust Macron. 

Many, judging by yesterday’s strong support for Ciotti, will stick with their convictions and shift to Zemmour or Le Pen. Valérie Pécresse — currently given only 8 to 10% of nationwide support in the first round proper — would then struggle to qualify for the run-off. 

Herding frogs, especially centre-Right frogs, is never easy.

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.