France elections: Macron rival party on brink – win back voters or ‘risk collapse’

Dr David Lees: Macron to ‘reposition’ France as EU leader

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Its recently selected candidate Valérie Pécresse needs to consolidate support across the right-wing to get through to the second round of the country’s presidential election next year. This could mean trying to appeal to voters on the far right who believe Europe belongs exclusively to white peoples and want a more authoritarian government in France.

The right is crowded with candidates in the race to become president, including National Rally president Marine Le Pen and TV pundit turned presidential hopeful Éric Zemmour, who is trying to build support among disenchanted right-wing voters.

France’s traditional centre-right Republicans party is preparing for a battle royale with Pécresse at the helm ahead of the vote in April.

Dr Paul Smith, Associate Professor in French History at Nottingham University, said: “Her big challenge is to unite that right-wing vote.
“The greatest fear for the right is they will get squeezed between Zemmour and Le Pen and Macron moving in on their territory as well.”

Paradoxically, Republicans remain strong locally, but have struggled to replicate that success at a national level.

However, the party has been out of power for nine years.

One opinion poll suggests Pécresse is on track to become the first female president of France, beating Macron in a run-off vote by 52 percent to 48 percent, but it is still early days.

First-round projections show Macron fairly consistently securing 23 to 24 percent of the vote with Pécresse on 17 percent, one percentage point ahead of Le Pen, with Zemmour falling back.

Second round projections suggest Macron would beat Le Pen reasonably comfortably if she made it through, but Dr Smith said Macron would face a tighter race with Pécresse.

He explained: “If it’s Pécresse versus Macron, it becomes more hazy. With opinion polls there’s a five percent possibility either way.”

That is because in such a scenario, both candidates would need the support of left-wing voters, a group for whom Macron has proven to be something of a disappointment.

In a bid to single herself out as the right’s best candidate, Marine Le Pen has described Pécresse as “perhaps the most Macronist of all the party candidates”.

By contrast, Pécresse describes herself as “one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel”.

However, unlike Merkel, who welcomed a million Syrian refugees into Germany, Pécresse talks about imposing migrant quotas.

Dr Smith said: “Which Angela Merkel is that? Part of her appeal is she can be all things to all voters, but that can be very risky.”

Shrinking the size of the civil service is another focus for the 54-year-old who in 2004 served as former French president Nicolas Sarkozys’ spokeswoman.

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Dr Smith explained also that there is no mileage in Pécresse’s bid to play on the idea that she is an electable female candidate.

Such a presentation contrasts with Le Pen who is keen to assert herself as more of a stateswoman, but this may backfire with Zemmour appearing more radical as a result and so siphoning away Le Pen’s support.

But there could be a flipside to this too.

Dr Smith said: “It allows Le Pen to look more serious, to look like a reasonable voice of the far-right, if there is such a thing. Zemmour allows her to look more moderate.”

Le Pen did poorly in France’s last regional elections with people on the harder right of her party arguing it was because she had lost her radical edge.

Zemmour, who espouses the white nationalist conspiracy theory that white people are being replaced in France and Europe, appears to be filling the void she has left behind, according to Dr Smith.

However, Zemmour appears as yet not to have secured the sponsors he needs to stand as a candidate.

Dr Smith said both Pécresse and Macron want to fight the election on social issues, including pension reform and the cost of living, rather than immigration and French identity.

Macron, according to Dr Smith, also wants voters to consider his management of the Covid pandemic, which the president views as a success.

With the stakes set high, Macron and Pécresse appear to be tacking towards the hard right with the latter talking of eradicating zones of “non-France” and both talking tough on immigration.

Political scientist Jérôme Jaffré has said previously that while Eric Zemmour shook Le Pen by outflanking her on the extreme right, Pécresse has shaken Macron by moving onto the centre-ground.

Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University, told France 24 that only Pécresse poses a threat to Macron’s re-election.

He said: “It will not come from the hopelessly divided left or the unelectable far right. 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.”

However, Dr Smith warned: “If Pécresse is eliminated in the first round, it’s the collapse of Les Républicains. If Macron and Le Pen are in the second round, the oxygen that sustains Les Républicains disappears.”

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