OPINION: Only two people can win the French presidential election and it will be close

Valerie Pécresse is the French centre-right candidate.
Valerie Pécresse is the French centre-right candidate. Photo: Julien Da Rosa/AFP
With the official candidates (almost) all in place for the 2022 French presidential election, John Lichfield looks at who is likely to make the second round - and what this will mean for France.

French politics is complicated but let’s make things simple. Only two people can win the presidential election in April – President Emmanuel Macron and Valérie Pécresse, who was selected on Saturday as the official candidate of the centre-right.

Of the 15 or so likely candidates in Round One, only four people can reach the two-candidate run-off on April 24th: Macron and Pécresse and the terrible twins of the far right, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

Macron would beat either Le Pen or Zemmour – Zemmour somewhat more easily than Le Pen. Pécresse would crush either of them.

But Macron v Pécresse in Round Two? That would be very close indeed.

Is France heading for its first woman President and its first female leader since the regent Marie de Médicis in the early 17th century? Not necessarily.

Pécresse, 54, as things stand, has only a slender chance of finishing in the top two in the first round on April 10th. She is trailing badly in the opinion polls, with only 8 to 10 percent of first round support.

Macron, talking an average of recent opinion polls, is on 24 percent. Le Pen back to 19 or 20 percent. Zemmour has slipped back to 15 or 16 percent.

Much can happen in four months – especially with a new wave of Covid-19 raging and another, potentially nasty variant threatening. Pécresse will get a bounce in the polls from her victory on Saturday in the closed primary of the main centre-right party, Les Républicains (LR). But so will Eric Zemmour.

In all the hoopla of the weekend – the Pécresse victory and the first big Zemmour rally at Villepinte (the French Nuremburg?), it was easy to miss a significant straw in the wind.

A small but influential party or pressure group called Le Mouvement Conservateur, formerly Sens Commun, severed its official link with Les Républicains after Pécresse crushed the hard-right parliamentarian Eric Ciotti 61-39 percent  in the second round of the LR primary.

The party – dominated by well-off, devout Catholics who are anti-gay and anti-abortion and anti-Islam – moved into the camp of Eric Zemmour. They said that “French civilisation” was at stake and they did not believe that Valérie Pécresse would defend it.

And yet Pécresse – smart, tough, a fluent debater – is one of their own. She was educated at a convent school in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the ultra-wealthy town on the western border of Paris. She was a leading figure in the anti-gay marriage movement Manif pour Tous in 2012-3.

Since she became president of the greater Paris region, Île-de-France, Pécresse has accepted that gay marriage is part of the social acquis (status quo) and cannot be reversed. That is one of the reasons why she is detested by some in her own party and a large section of the wider and harder French Right.

The other reason is that she left the Républicains in 2017 after disobeying party orders and announcing that she would support Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.

It was instructive to read the reactions on social media on Saturday to the Pécresse victory. Ciotti supporters called  her, amongst other things “Valérie Traitresse” , “Valérie Princesse” and a “Macron-en-jupe” (Macron-in-a-skirt”).

If elected President, they said, she would pursue the same pro-European, centrist policies, allegedly weak on migration and crime, which governments of the left, right and centre have pursued for decades. President Valerie Macron, President Emmanuel Pécresse – same difference.

Pécresse, of course, sees things differently. She told the Journal du Dimanche today that she would offer a “powerful project of rupture (with the past)”. Unlike Macron, she would not be a “President zig-jag”.

Yes, she would be different – in style and at the margins. But fundamentally the Pécresse haters on the right-of-the-Right are right.

Under a President Pécresse France would remain deeply engaged in the European Union. The economic reforms begun under François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron would continue. She might by a little tougher on crime and migration but there would not be the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim policies threatened by Zemmour and Le Pen.

A section of the French centre-right has already moved into the Macron camp: the former Prime minister Edouard Philippe, the present Prime Minister, Jean Castex, the finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, the interior minister Gérald Darmanin, the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi.

What is the ideological difference between these people and  Valérie Pécresse? There is none.

If Macron and Pécresse come head-to-head in the second round on April 24th, it will in effect be a choice between Brie and Camembert, Burgundy and Bordeaux, a question of taste, judgement and allegiance, rather than fundamental differences. They are both in the same pro-European, pro-market, managerial camp which currently commands the allegiance of around 30 percent of French voters.

Another 30 percent supports the Left but they are hopelessly scattered between 6 or 7 candidates. None of them has more than 10 percent support. Unless something very dramatic happens, there will be no left or green candidate in top four on April 10th, let alone the top two. Many people of the Left may be obliged to vote grouchily against the far right two weeks later.

The remaining 30 percent of French voters – or rather more – want to see a President of the hard or far right. They no longer make a distinction between these categories. They are Eurosceptic or Europhoboic, nationalist or outright xenophobic.

The frontier between this nationalist bloc and the moderate Macron-Pécresse centre-to-centre-right  now passes almost through the middle of Les Républicains party. Some of the 39 percent of party members who voted for Ciotti on Saturday (and their equivalents in the wider electorate) will support Pécresse. Many will not.

To reach Round Two, Pécresse will rely on the Zemmour vote melting down – but not too much. She needs to win back the centre-right voters who have migrated to him. But she needs him to hold on to voters he has taken from Le Pen.

She needs a three-way battle for second place on April 10th in which she can pip Le Pen and Zemmour. She would then be supported by much of the Macron-hating Left in Round Two (who would cheerfully detest her for the next five years).

I think it’s, on balance, unlikely that Pécresse will win the presidency. She could. If so, nothing very dramatic would change.

The big battle for the soul of France – democratic or authoritarian; European or ultra-nationalist – may be coming. But it will happen in 2027, not 2022.


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