January 6, 2022 - 4:00pm

The true battle-within-the-battle of the French presidential election is already raging. It is not a battle of Left v Right or even centre v far Right. It is a battle of centre vs centre, between two versions of the post-war French political consensus.

In the one corner is President Emmanuel Macron. His headline actions and comments in recent days — the European flag flying solo beneath the Arc de Triomphe; the declaration that he wanted to “emmerder” (piss off) the 8% of non-vaccinated French — were intended (at least in part) to widen the splits in the traditional centre Right.

In the other corner is the centre-Right presidential candidate, Valérie Pécresse. She is in a tight, three-way struggle with two far right candidates, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, for the second place in the first round on 10 April.

She scarcely ever mentions either of them. All her criticism is aimed at Macron, who is floating up to 10 points ahead of the field in the opinion polls. 

Much of Macron’s energy and guile is aimed at Pécresse. He is doing all he can — with some success — to place explosive charges in the fault lines of her party, Les Républicains.

There were several reasons why Macron approved the solo appearance of the EU flag on the Arc to mark the beginning of France’s six months presidency of the EU council. There were several reasons why he abandoned presidential decorum and said that his government’s anti-Covid strategy was to harass and “piss off” the non-vaccinated.

It is no coincidence that both actions caused some embarrassment for Pécresse, who is struggling to hold together the two wings of her party: the moderate conservative, pro-Europeans and the hard-line, nationalist and populists.

She was obliged to follow Le Pen and Zemmour in making a fuss about the flag, unsettling the moderate pro-Europeans. She felt obliged — despite Macron’s uncouth description of his strategy — to continue her support for the government’s proposed, tougher “vaccine pass”, which will deny all fun and travel to the unvaxxed. That threatens to anger the libertarian and populist sections of Les Républicains.

Earlier this week, Pécresse put on a show of strength by unveiling her campaign politburo, including two of the men she defeated in the party primary on 4 December. They included the hard-Right parliamentarian, Eric Ciotti, who makes no secret of his admiration for Zemmour. They also included the former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

She called them “my great army of conquest to serve France”. “Grande Armée” was a reference to the Emperor Napoleon while “conquest” was a reference to Zemmour’s new anti-migration, anti-Islam, Europhobic party, “Reconquête”.

Moderate members of Les Républicains have been unhappy with Pécresse’s first month of campaigning. They fear that, far from proving an inspired general, she has been taken captive by the Right wing of her own army.

That, they fear, will make it harder to “reconquer” the parts of the centre-Right vote which deserted her party for Macron in 2017 — and the many other moderate voters who are tempted to stick with the President this year.

Other party insiders say that Pécresse has no choice but to campaign to the Right to push ahead of Le Pen and Zemmour in Round One and claim one of the two places in the run-off. Most recent polls place her neck and neck with Le Pen on 16%, with Zemmour just behind and Macron 7 to 10 points ahead. If she reaches the second round, the insiders believe she will win.

Macron’s manoeuvres in recent days suggest that the President agrees with them. He fears neither Le Pen nor Zemmour. He does fear Pécresse. He will do all that he can in the next 100 days to split Les Républicains and embarrass her.

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.