Conservative Pécresse looks to establish herself as the ‘only threat’ to Macron

The only candidate to have edged Emmanuel Macron in any poll for the all-important second round of the French presidential election, Valérie Pécresse has enjoyed surging ratings since she won the conservative Les Républicains party primary in early December. Analysts say Pécresse poses a formidable threat to the president as she targets his voters on the centre ground of French politics.

For much of Macron’s term France expected – and did not want – a replay of the 2017 Macron vs. Marine Le Pen duel in the 2022 presidential election second round.

In this landscape, traditional conservatives Les Républicains (LR) looked trapped in a constricted political space between President Macron and the Rassemblement National's Le Pen, then unassailable as the far-right’s standard-bearer.

But new developments have changed the dynamic.

As political scientist Jérôme Jaffré put it, just like Eric Zemmour “shook” Le Pen by outflanking her on the extreme right, Pécresse is “shaking” Macron as she encroaches on his territory – the far more vote-rich centre ground.

Macron the ‘pale imitation’?

Pécresse established her attack line against Macron at the end of summer, long before she became the LR candidate. Knowing that the president has moved to the right along with the centre ground of the French electorate, Pécresse cast Macron as a “pale imitation” of a centre-right leader. She said he promised to transform France but has done “almost nothing” except manage crises.

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Now Pécresse has established herself as a major threat to Macron in the second round – as demonstrated by an Elabe survey in early December showing her beating him in the runoff, amid a polling surge after her LR primary triumph.

While Pécresse’s campaign is keen to entrench her in the French public consciousness as the only viable alternative to Macron, her climb in the ratings has only gone so far. Politico’s first-round polling aggregate puts Macron at 24 percent and Pécresse at 17, with Le Pen at 16 and Zemmour at 13. And historically French elections have often confounded early polls.

Nevertheless, that Elabe poll was like an “electric shock”, an anonymous figure close to Macron told Le Journal de Dimanche.

Macron took recourse to the Élysée machinery, using the airtime only a president enjoys to give a lengthy TV interview last week. Months after Pécresse charged him with “inertia”, Macron defended his credentials as an economic reformer, saying he “couldn’t do everything” in one term.

Indeed, experts say the president recognises Pécresse as the biggest danger to his bid for a second term.

The threat to Macron’s re-election will come “only from Pécresse; it will not come from the hopelessly divided left or the unelectable far right”, said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University. “Before Pécresse entered the race, Macron was heading comfortably for re-election with no viable challenger. Now he faces a mainstream conservative opponent who threatens part of his own centre-right base.”

In portraying herself as an original and Macron as a copy, Pécresse is playing the “card of authenticity for voters on the right who might have inclined to Macron by default”, Shields added.

‘Straddling divides within the right’

Macron won many of these votes well before his pivot to the right as president. Polls showed LR’s François Fillon on track to win the 2017 presidential contest until a financial impropriety scandal torpedoed his candidacy. Much of his support went to Macron and propelled the young contender into first place.

“A big concern for Macron will be that Pécresse can capture back the Filloniste voters he won last time,” said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester.

In that astonishing rise to power five years ago, Macron gave himself a broader appeal than Fillon, accumulating support from centre-left and centre-right by taking ideas from both sides – the famous en même temps (“at the same time”) approach.

This time Pécresse looks to pull off a similar manoeuvre and rake in votes across the broad spectrum of French conservatism, encompassing a centre ground that has shifted to the right since Macron took office.

The LR candidate is trying to build on her reputation as a technocratic moderate from her past six years running the Paris region – promising to streamline the state and curb France’s public debt, which is expected to reach 116 percent of GDP by the end of the year. Simultaneously, Pécresse vows to toughen French laws on security and immigration.

“She is a big threat to Macron because she can pull off her own en même temps, straddling the divides within the right,” Smith noted. “She has one foot in the technocratic, centre-right approach to matters like economic policy; and another foot in the rather more identitarian politics of order, security and France’s Catholic heritage – issues that can be addressed without going as far as the extreme right.”

Yet over the course of a long campaign that still has months to run, Smith cautioned, Pécresse could end up walking “a bit of a tightrope” as she pursues this en même temps. On one front, she is targeting Macron’s voters. On another, she is fighting Zemmour and Le Pen for a ticket to the second round.

Zemmour is keen to win over mainstream conservatives — and his presence on the extreme right risks fracturing the LR coalition. Hard-right MP Eric Ciotti – who said last autumn he would back Zemmour against Macron if the two were in the second round – narrowly won the first stage of the LR primary before Pécresse’s decisive victory in the runoff. While he called on Zemmour supporters to back Pécresse instead, Ciotti also bewailed her refusal to countenance his Zemmour-style proposal for a French version of the US military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay.

“A danger for Pécresse is someone like Ciotti flipping to Zemmour and disturbing her campaign,” Smith observed.

But Zemmour’s ratings have sunk after his autumn ascent. Analysts say he is seen as too toxic and lacking in credibility for most traditional conservative voters. Meanwhile his new political vehicle Reconquête has nothing like the well-rooted party infrastructure LR enjoys across France.

Indeed, none of Pécresse’s three main rivals boast comparable get-out-the-vote machinery – which played a crucial role in powering LR to the top of France’s regional polls in June.

“One of the biggest threats posed by Pécresse is her party’s ability to wage an electoral ground war,” Shields said. “LR remains a formidable campaigning machine with a deeply embedded presence across the towns, departments and regions of France and a newly energised and expanded membership. This contrasts with Macron, Le Pen and Zemmour, none of whom have anything like the same capacity to mount an extensive ground campaign and rally grassroots support across the country.”

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