Valerie Pecresse, the French center-right’s pick to challenge Emmanuel Macron for the presidency next year, describes herself as a mix of Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher. This is bold talk for a candidate currently polling at 10%, who looks set to fail even to make the run-off vote.
The 54-year-old former minister aspiring to be France’s first female head of state looks more like someone planning to beat Macron at his own game.
She has long viewed the incumbent as France’s answer to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and even met with his Conservative successor David Cameron for guidance on how to unseat a rival steeped in ‘Third Way’ politics. Her winning pitch to the Les Republicains party this weekend wasn’t quite a copy of Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism,” but it did balance anti-immigration rhetoric with economic reforms.
Like Cameron and Blair, it is Pecresse’s similarity to Macron that makes her a threat, if ever she faces off against the incumbent. She’s a polished politician with an ear for soundbites: Macron’s pandemic spending spree has trashed France’s cash register, she likes to say. Given her enarque background and establishment pedigree, it will be hard for Macron to play the technocrat card against her or to paint her as a risky radical like far-right foe Marine Le Pen.
Macron, currently the bookmakers’ and pollsters’ favorite to win next year, knows that the biggest risk to his re-election comes from the French electorate’s post-Covid conservative tilt. Around 56% of people might vote for a right-wing candidate next year, according to one survey, and Macron has seized on several talking points in response, from restoring France’s industrial grandeur to prodding the unemployed back to work.
Pecresse’s challenge ahead looks huge: Uniting the right in an increasingly fragmented and radical field where divisions over Europe, economics and identity are everywhere. That will require a coherent program and party line beyond her current proposals — such as diluting the 35-hour work week or reducing France’s debt load — which are an easy target for harder-right rivals accusing her of being too Macronian for comfort.
The French right’s tendency to split itself into three — conservative, liberal and authoritarian, as one historian puts it — is out in the open, not relegated to the fringe, and is a threat to Pecresse. One November poll estimated around half the center-right’s votes would go to Pecresse in the first round, with the rest split between Macron and Eric Zemmour, a far-right commentator who is calling for a “reconquest” of the country from immigrants and criminals.
Le Pen, meanwhile, has built a solid support base of her own from rural and working-class voters, and pulled French politics to the right.
Pecresse’s narrow demographic appeal among the elderly and in her region — Paris — shows the center-right’s challenge in making its voice heard nationally. Symbolic figureheads Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon have been humbled by scandals. The November poll found around 60% of French people thought none of the Republicains contenders had credible proposals in a host of topics, from purchasing power to immigration.
And the party’s recent focus on identity politics and conservative values haven’t made headway in a changing France, caught between de-industrialization and an end to Catholic and Communist voting blocs. Research by Jean-Laurent Cassely and Jerome Fourquet examining the Alsace region’s voting patterns in 2019 showed urban areas, tourist zones and wine country had gone to Macron, while areas that had once hummed with textile factories and potash mining were in Le Pen’s hands.
Pecresse’s answer to these challenges will likely be to keep triangulating between a pro-Europe white-collar bloc led by Macron and a far-right blue-collar bloc led by Le Pen, who will keep stepping up their efforts to peel away Republicains voters. This is very different to what a genuine Merkel or Thatcher moment might look like in France, in terms of rolling back the state or endorsing tough reform medicine. It looks more like trying to win back what’s been lost — while cutting spending and taxes.
This was enough for Cameron in the UK, and it may work for Pecresse. But given where Cameron’s political legacy ended up, it may only embolden more radical opposition.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion Columnist.