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SAINT-GILLES-CROIX-DE-VIE, France — In a small hall in the town hall of the coastal town of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, Valérie Pécresse was furious.
“Shit !” she told a group of reporters, banging her fist on the table. The French presidential candidate of the conservative Les Républicains party had just spent an hour and a half talking about the economy with fishermen and small business owners.
But all the questions were about a speech she gave the previous weekend in Paris, in which she referred to the “Great Replacement”, a far-right conspiracy theory according to which Europeans of Christian origin are deliberately replaced by Muslim immigrants with the complicity of political elites.
“It’s mind-boggling that a single sentence is underlined, which doesn’t have the meaning you gave it at all,” she said, accusing the media and supporters of French President Emmanuel Macron of trying to portray it as extreme.
“The controversy I am going through is completely invented, because nothing in my speech and in my behavior can give credit to this denigration of Pécresse – if not a strategy completely orchestrated by the macronists, who want to discredit me”, she added. . added.
At one point it was a small game, but the encounter, which took place last month, summed up the challenge Pécresse has faced as she seeks to present a conservative alternative to Macron, while arguing ferociously in first place in the April 10 vote with two good candidates: Marine Le Pen of the National Rally and former TV pundit Eric Zemmour.
As her party’s first female presidential candidate, Pécresse has drawn a lot of attention for the groundbreaking nature of her run, with some giving her a good shot at facing Macron in the second round of voting on April 24. But his lackluster performance on the campaign trail and the huge disruption caused by the war in Ukraine are making his path to victory ever narrower.
With his campaign now hovering between third and fourth place in the polls, his candidacy story is more likely to be one of his party’s predicament. in the Macron era, as she struggles to find a place in an increasingly crowded part of the political spectrum.
“The Republicans are caught between the far right and the liberal macronist right,” said Maxime des Gayets, leader of the socialist group in the Paris region and long-time opponent of Pécresse. “Valérie Pécresse’s problem is that she constantly gives pledges to both.”
A lack of ‘I do not know what’
Pécresse’s time on the campaign trail has exposed both his well-known strengths and weaknesses. The president of the Paris region is considered a smart and efficient technocrat, but she hasn’t been able to shake off the perception that she is stiff and bourgeois that has haunted her for the more than 20 years she has spent in politics.
A product of France elite education system – she attended the best schools in the country, including the National School of Administration which produced former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Francois Hollande, as well as Macron – his professional background includes terms in parliament and stints as a minister during former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure.
In 2015, Pécresse wrested the presidency of the Paris region from the Socialist Party, becoming the first female leader of one of the richest regions in Europe. She was re-elected in 2021.
“She’s certainly one of the most determined people I know: she sets goals and doesn’t let go until she achieves them, with a kind of tenacity,” said Jean-Raymond Hugonet, a Republican senator who showed up on his ticket. in the 2015 regional elections.
Described by friends and foes alike as a hard-working, detail-oriented politician, Pécresse is comfortable with topics like the administrative burden facing small businesses or the impact of Brexit on fishermen.
But people around her, including her late mentor Chirac, have noted that she can seem uncomfortable when dealing with the public – a significant handicap in a country where shaking hands with strangers on markets and kissing babies is a centerpiece of any political campaign.
“Pécresse has trouble with proximity,” said a Republican veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In the end, she is not a politician. She’s a good civil servant, but France is not an administration. It lacks a touch of madness.
A woman’s journey
Pécresse is not the first woman to have a chance to become president of France. Marine Le Pen qualified for the second round of voting in 2017 and is the favorite to face Macron this time as well. And in 2007, the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal lost in the second round against Sarkozy.
But while Pécresse has spoken of being the target of sexism throughout her career, her record as a feminist is mixed.
Mother of three children, she complained of being nicknamed “the blonde” by her opponents and said of having been refused jobs because of her pregnancies.
Speaking to reporters after her rally in Paris in February, she attributed the harsh beatings she received from the press and political opponents in part to the fact that she is a woman. “When Emmanuel Macron was doing rallies five years ago, where he was a very bad speaker, he didn’t have a week of violence like the one I just had,” she said. “Beyond that, yes, there are hints of misogyny, but that’s okay you know, I’m used to it.”
In mid-January, she confronted one of France’s most feared journalists, Jean-Jacques Bourdin, live on television after he was accused of sexual assault.
“If these accusations are true, they are serious and must be condemned… As president of all French people, I will no longer allow any woman to be afraid to file a complaint. The code of silence is over,” she said during a two-minute speech, looking Bourdin in the eye visibly embarrassed and shushing him with her hand when he tried to interrupt her.
And yet, weeks later, Pécresse – who said she felt “two-thirds Angela Merkel, one-third Margaret Thatcher” – promised she would rule with “a man’s fist”.
“She’s a feminist when it suits her,” said Emmanuelle Cosse, a former minister and deputy for the Greens and one of Pécresse’s opponents on the regional council. As proof, Cosse cited the fact that Pécresse had restored financial aid to anti-abortion movements in Ile-de-France.
Classically liberal for most of her career – her stances have been pro-business, fiscally conservative and pro-EU – Pécresse has struggled as a candidate to differentiate herself from Macron while pushing back against the far right.
“Emmanuel Macron’s political strategy is to say that there are extremists on one side and progressives on the other… But between the two, there is me,” he said. she declared during her trip to the vicinity of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie.
Since then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has grabbed the headlines and completely disrupted the campaign, giving Macron an edge and relegating his political opponents to the sidelines.
Pécresse tried to take advantage of Le Pen and Zemmour by pointing out their past pro-Kremlin statements. But her party also has skeletons in its closets, with the former prime minister under whom she served, Francois Fillon, having dragged his feet before quitting the boards of two Russian energy companies after the invasion. His decision to convene a shadow defense council on the war in Ukraine – in a bid to showcase his presidential chops – has been ridiculed online, and his candidacy faces growing headwinds.
Two of his party’s heavyweights, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and former Budget Minister Éric Woerth, also recently rallied Macron in a waving of their eyebrows, while former President Nicolas Sarkozy did not. not yet approved.
In 2019, Pécresse left Les Républicains, arguing that then-president Laurent Wauquiez led the party too far to the right. But since returning to the party fold and securing her nomination, she herself has leaned to the right, notably on immigration and the EU.
“Until before the current presidential election, she was known for her liberal and right-wing beliefs,” said Thomas Guénolé, a left-wing political scientist who has written about France’s conservatives. “There was not the thickness of a cigarette leaf between her and Emmanuel Macron – and that was her problem.”
His problem now – as the reactions to his rally in Paris showed – remains the same: finding unoccupied political space to bring his party back to relevance.
“The Republicans might not survive the presidential election, they wouldn’t be the only ones and it’s not the end of the world,” said Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, a former Republican heavyweight who supports now Macron, in an interview with POLITICO in February. .
“They are the ones who opened Pandora’s box. When in 2017 they refused to choose between the extremes and Emmanuel Macron… they brought out the evil genius who will devour them next,” he said.
Pauline de Saint Remy, Clea Caulcutt and Juliette Droz contributed reporting.