Paris, France
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Valérie Pécresse’s presidential election campaign is that it’s better than the Socialist Party’s. Which is to damn with faint praise. The French left are in such a dire state that if the opinion polls prove correct, their candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, won’t pass the 5 percent mark in the first round required for candidates to recoup half their campaign costs.

Pécresse has no worry on that score but she has failed to inspire the electorate since she was selected as the nominee for...

Paris, France

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Valérie Pécresse’s presidential election campaign is that it’s better than the Socialist Party’s. Which is to damn with faint praise. The French left are in such a dire state that if the opinion polls prove correct, their candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, won’t pass the 5 percent mark in the first round required for candidates to recoup half their campaign costs.

Pécresse has no worry on that score but she has failed to inspire the electorate since she was selected as the nominee for the center-right Les Republicans (LR) in December. An opinion poll this week had her trailing Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, with Éric Zemmour only one point behind her on 14.5 percent. Zemmour, a political novice, is regularly eviscerated in the media but whatever you may think of the right-wing candidate, at least the electorate knows he has convictions. What exactly does Pécresse stand for?

Nonetheless, even with her insipid campaign, the fifty-four-year-old Pécresse could conceivably become the first female president of France in April. Were she to squeeze into the second round behind Macron, she would be a far more polished adversary than the inept Le Pen was in 2017; and such is the contempt many in France feel towards Macron that they will vote for almost anyone but him.

What would a Pécresse presidency entail? Frankly, much the same as Macron’s. The pair are centralists, globalists and Europhiles. Pécresse has built her career on the cozy consensus policies that have dominated France this century. This point was recently rammed home by Guillaume Peltier, the former vice-president of LR who defected to Zemmour’s Reconquête party in January and is now his spokesman. “For me, Pécresse has become a useless vote,” he said in a television interview this week. Asked why, Peltier said she was “the clone of Emmanuel Macron” and her “convictions fluctuate depending on the breaking news”. Peltier believes Zemmour is the only candidate on the right with the “courage” to speak honestly about France’s decline and what needs to be done to restore the Republic to its former glory.

Pécresse has this year talked tough on Zemmour’s two pet subjects — immigration and Islamic extremism — but which center-right politician in the past two decades hasn’t? The trouble for Pécresse is that her party’s core voters have become cynical of mainstream politicians. They watch the news and read the papers; they know that violent crime has rocketed in recent years, to the point where some inner cities in Marseille and the southern suburbs of Paris are often described as no-go zones for the police. Last month Pécresse vowed to “take a power hose” to these enclaves, a line first uttered by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005 when he was minister of the Interior. He never followed up on his threat.

Pécresse is a protégée of Sarkozy, which will do little for her standing among the disenchanted working-class. When he was elected president in 2007 he promised all manner of economic and social reforms, but none of them came to pass. Fifteen years later, Sarko’s tenure is remembered for its corruption (he was convicted last year) and its vulgarity — “President Bling-Bling,” as he was dubbed.

Pécresse has been on the political scene for three decades, and since 2015 she has served as the president of the Paris region. That’s her city. Born into an upper-middle-class family in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a particularly affluent district of the capital, Pécresse attended the École nationale d’administration (ENA), the finishing school for French technocrats. Macron went there, as did his predecessor, François Hollande, and the last two prime ministers are also former students. Énarques, as they are called, aren’t known for their free-thinking. It’s groupthink politics, and rare are those who graduate from ENA with anything other than unalloyed admiration for the European Union.

Pécresse is more devoted than most. In 2005 she was an MP in Jacques Chirac’s center-right UMP party (since rebranded the Republican Party) and was a prominent member of the “Yes” campaign when France held a referendum on the EU Constitution. But France voted “No.” Chirac promised to respect the verdict but within weeks Pécresse hosted a debate at the National Assembly, the aim of which was to find a way around the referendum result. Her solution was “to draft a new text.” That is what happened not long after Sarkozy came to power, and this time parliament didn’t make the mistake of putting the question to the people; it simply ratified the Lisbon Treaty, which was the EU Constitution in all but name.

Pécresse has never exhibited an iota of shame for this subversion of the democratic process. On the contrary, when Britain voted to leave the EU she promised a “very painful economic future” for the UK, a sneer she repeated in 2019 “because when we leave [the EU] it should be painful.”

Those remarks demonstrate how out of touch Pécresse is with her electorate. She can’t conceive that the French might want to follow Britain out of the EU. Even Macron knows this is the case, as he admitted in an interview with the BBC in 2018.

Wearing Europhilia like a badge of honor is not a vote-winner in France. Nor is lavishing praise on Angela Merkel. In an interview last summer Pécresse stated that she was “one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel.” Apart from the dyed-in-the-wool Socialists, the French understand having admiration for Thatcher, la dame de fer, a figure who was respected for the strength of her convictions. But Merkel? The woman who spoke so loftily of Europe but always put Germany’s interests first? During Merkel’s sixteen years as chancellor, France has suffered economically and culturally, and a great many French will never forgive her for opening Europe’s borders in 2015 to more than a million refugees and economic migrants.

Pécresse once shared Merkel’s distaste for nuclear energy, and in 2016 she opened the first wind farm in the Paris region. She has recently changed her position, and one of her manifesto pledges is to relaunch the Astrid nuclear reactor project that was canceled in 2019. That could make for some robust conversation in the Pécresse household: her husband, Jérôme, is head of General Electric Renewable Energy, and was at Cop26 last year to promote the construction of the Dogger Bank wind farm in the North Sea, the largest of its kind in the world. “Time for net zero, are you in?” he tweeted. “GE Renewables is in!”

For Pécresse to get where she has in the notoriously sexist world of French politics is testament to her strength of character. She’s as tenacious as she is ambitious, and undoubtedly many women look to her as a role model. Some of her adversaries have accused her of exploiting her femininity, which is unfair. She’s a powerful public figure and she is right to criticize sexism where she sees it. She did just that last month when she appeared on TV with host Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a veteran political journalist who had just been accused of sexual harassment (and has been suspended while the claims are investigated). Referring in general to sexual harassment in the workplace, Pécresse told Bourdin that “the law of silence is finished.”

When she was nominated as LR’s presidential candidate in December, Pécresse boomed that the “right was back.” She was partly correct. The right is back, but she is not their figurehead. It’s Zemmour. He speaks for the silent majority among right-wing voters, and to a lesser extent so does Le Pen. Their supporters are the “somewheres,” the Gallic answer to Red Wall voters in Britain. They are proud of their country and disapprove of its loss of sovereignty to Brussels; they are also fearful about rising crime and soaring energy prices, and stagnant wages.

Zemmour is addressing these anxieties, broadening his pitch from Islamism and immigration to encompass plans to reinvigorate the economy. “Work more to earn more,” he told a rally in Lille last weekend. The words will not have been lost on Pécresse. It was Sarkozy’s slogan during the 2007 presidential campaign. He never kept that promise and that is another reason why Pécresse is paying the price in the polls. Zemmour is pinching not only her party’s slogans but also their voters.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.