Elections in France: chances of an outsider

By Victor Warhem

In the primaries of the conservative party Les Républicains (LR) Valérie Pécresse had luck on her side. No more than 3,500 votes separated the relevant candidates Bertrand, Barnier, Ciotti, and Pécresse, and the entry of the only woman into the second round was a surprise for most observers. In the run-off against far-right representative Éric Ciotti the situation was clearer.

Pécresse has run her campaign well so far. She is well organized, has a good team, and is a proud feminist, which is quite refreshing for the LR. Her surprise success in the primaries seems to be giving her campaign a boost – her poll numbers recently skyrocketed from 9 to 20 percent. In the runoff against Emmanuel Macron, she would even be ahead. Macron (around 24 percent in the polls), Le Pen (around 20 percent) and Zemmour (around 14 percent).

Merkel and Thatcher

“Two-thirds Merkel, one-third Thatcher” is how Valérie Pécresse described herself in September. But the formula doesn’t fit at all with the picture of her painted by the French press. For a long time, there was no Thatcher in Pécresse: She was a political heiress to Chirac, who was not exactly known for his appetite for change. In 2017, she left LR and was classified as a “Macron-compatible” center-right personality. She returned to the party only a few weeks before the primaries.

The comparison with Merkel also seems far-fetched, as she does not exhibit the qualities that best describe the former German chancellor: acknowledged shrewdness, composure in the face of coming challenges, and no real sense of consensus.

Pécresse, on the other hand, is well known for her sense of comparison: during her successful campaign for the Île de France region, she distinguished herself with another powerful phrase: “rien de tel qu’une femme pour faire le ménage,” which translates as “there is nothing better than a woman who cleans up.” This was perhaps the moment her Thatcher side was born, at least in words.

The difficult road to the presidency

In any case, she will have to prove her assertiveness sooner than she would like. After losing the runoff election, Pécresses’ opponent Ciotti announced the formation of a new faction within the party. The new wing will be called “À droite”. “To the right.” A step that makes it clear that Les Républicains are hardly united behind their surprise candidate.

In addition, Pécresse must contend with the newly founded center-right party “Horizonte” of Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe. Only recently a well-known face of the LR, Christian Estrosi, switched to the new party.

This is intended to support Macron in the upcoming presidential elections in April 2022 and help him form a majority in the parliamentary elections that follow in June. Edouard Philippe is among the most popular political players in France, which should make it even more difficult for Pécresse to win more votes from the right and center. Rather, Philippe could even persuade die-hard LR voters to eventually opt for Macron.

Two possible campaign scenarios

In this context, two scenarios are possible: either Pécresse fails to reach the voters of the center and the right and she confirms the marginalization of the LR in a France where the new relevant political divide is between nationalists and globalists. Or she unifies her party thanks to a dynamic that emerges through her, reaches new voters, and goes to the second round. The path for the second option seems narrow, but conceivable. The election campaign has only just begun and it is to be expected that the fronts in the electorate will shift, from which she could benefit.

In addition, it should not be forgotten that the 2017 presidential election was completely unexpected due to scandals. The “scandal component” should not be underestimated for many candidates and could greatly change the current dynamic. This is also true for Pécresse, who has already spent 20 years in politics.

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