Valérie Pécresse: “Two-thirds Merkel, one-third Thatcher”

54-year-old Valérie Pécresse is the Republican presidential candidate in France

President Emmanuel Macron has gained a new serious rival for the presidential elections in April. Valérie Pécresse, the President of the capital region Île de France, has surprisingly won the online vote of around 140,000 supporters of Les Républicains – the conservative party of former presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.

She has been in the spotlight for years as a rival to Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Hidalgo is also a presidential candidate. Together with the far-right Marine Le Pen, three women are running for president.

Five candidates had stood for election among the Republicans, and 54-year-old Pécresse, who likes to wear a bright red blazer to set herself apart from the dark-clad gentlemen, had made it to the runoff along with Congressman Eric Ciotti of southern France. And won handily, with 60.95 percent to 39.05 percent.

This is the first time the Conservatives have nominated a woman. Pécresse declared after her election, “I think of all women in France. I will do everything to triumph.” With her, he said, the “republican right” is back. The Conservatives last provided the president with Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Politically, she says of herself, “I’m two-thirds Merkel and one-third Thatcher.” She admires Angela Merkel’s pragmatism but wants to be stricter.

Return to the conservative party

The politician has long been no stranger to France, having served as budget and education minister and government spokesperson under Nicolas Sarkozy. She left the conservative party a few years ago because its direction had become too right-wing for her but returned this year.

Pécresse is known as tenacious – and a typical representative of the French elite. She graduated from high school at the age of 16 and, like many French politicians, attended the ENA administrative college. She also studied economics at the elite HEC school. Her great supporter was former President Jacques Chirac, who brought her into the Élysée Palace as an advisor.

She has been President of the Île-de-France region since 2015 and was re-elected in 2021. In the process, she often fought against Anne Hidalgo’s environmental projects and represented the interests of motorists from the surrounding area. She comes from an upper-middle-class family in the luxurious Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris, where Nicolas Sarkozy was mayor for a long time and is the mother of three grown-up children.

She thus corresponds to the image of many French women who have a career and several children. She was supported by her husband, the businessman Jérôme Pécresse, to whom she has been married since 1994. There have never been any scandals around Pécresse.

“Most dangerous of all”

She can be dangerous for Emmanuel Macron. As a woman, she brings a breath of fresh air to the election campaign. Macron won in 2017 because many hoped the newcomer would bring a fresh start to France. Now Pécresse is challenging him. She has a long political career behind her and is very well connected; she is considered a moderate within the Republican spectrum, in contrast to Ciotti, who belongs to the right-wing fringe.

According to media reports, Macron was hoping for Ciotti, who would have been an easier opponent. About Pécresse, those close to him said: “She is the most dangerous of all.” That’s because Pécresse’s voters overlap with those Macron has been courting for years, traditional conservatives. Bruno Jeanbart, vice-president of the Opinionway institute, said she was “a threat” to Macron: “She renews the Republicans: a woman, relatively young in the conservative party, where women have not always had a place. She’s also locally based, one of Emmanuel Macron’s weaknesses.”

During the election campaign, Pécresse had stressed that she wanted to restore “French pride” and described herself as a “woman of order and reformer”. She also spoke out in favor of a strong EU. In the pre-election campaign, the conservatives moved further and further to the right. Pécresse is tougher than Macron on the issues of security policy and immigration; she wants to take stronger action against illegal immigration.

Little room on the right spectrum

She describes herself as an economic liberal and wants to bring order back into the state budget by cutting 200,000 civil servant jobs. She also wants to push through a pension reform, raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and abolish the 35-hour week in France. She wants to cut social security contributions so business owners will raise wages and reduce unemployment benefits. She criticized the president, saying, “Emmanuel Macron is only obsessed with pleasing. I’m obsessed with getting things done.”

For the Republicans, however, there is not much room between the far-right and Macron, who has moved further and further to the right. Marine Le Pen stressed that Pécresse had similar positions to Macron and called on disappointed Republican voters to vote for her party. According to polls, Macron was always the favorite, followed by the far-right Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. No matter which Conservative candidate was tested, they were always in fourth place for the first round of voting at the earliest, Pécresse at around 10 percent versus Macron at 25 percent, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy.

But Pécresse still has enough time to catch up. She showed her unity with the defeated Eric Ciotti and wants to make her first official trip as a candidate to the latter’s region around Nice as early as today, accompanied by Ciotti. Thus she makes the bridge between the two camps of the conservatives. Tanja Kuchenbecker

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