December 8, 2021   7 mins

A decade ago, I used to walk with my daughters to their convent school just outside the western border of Paris proper. Little by little, streams of cheerful, determined girls would join us on bikes or on scooters or on foot. As we drew nearer to the school, the streams would turn into rivers. “I didn’t know there were so many girls in the world,” my younger daughter once said.

The girls were well turned-out; many of them came from the kind of well-heeled or intellectual families once called “BCBG” — bon chic, bon genre — living in the western arrondissements of Paris. Others came from Neuilly-sur-Seine, the richest commune in France, just outside the city boundary (where Nicolas Sarkozy was once the mayor).

Whenever I see Valérie Pécresse I think of those walks. She has the same cheerful, determined, understated “BCBG” look. That is hardly a surprise; she was educated at that same convent school as my daughters.

The dual aim of Sainte-Marie de Neuilly is to turn out faithful and traditional Catholics girls but also tough, intelligent young women capable of competing with men in a men’s world. My non-French daughters hated it for the most part, but it educated them well.

Pécresse, 54, now stands at the entrance to a labyrinth which could lead her next year to win a competition which no French woman has ever won: to be President of the Republic. Last weekend, she became the first woman to be chosen as presidential candidate for the French centre-right, the political family of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ten years ago ,that would have made her one of the favourites, even the favourite, to be the next President. But life is more complicated now — and it is growing more complicated by the day: part of the centre-right has emigrated to President Emmanuel Macron, while other sections have shifted to two far-Right candidates, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.

Meanwhile, Pécresse — who has been President of the greater Paris region, Ile-de- France, since 2015 — is little known outside the Paris area; and Paris is not liked in the rest of France. Before she won a closed primary of the main centre-right party, Les Républicains, on Saturday she was running a poor 4th in the national opinion polls on 8 to 10% of support for the first round of the presidential election on 10 April.

But two post-primary polls in recent days have boosted her to 14% and 17% respectively. In other words, she is already pushing for a place, ahead of her two far-Right rivals, in the two-candidate second round on 24 April.

The election is, of course, still a long way away. Opinion polls bounces come and go. Just ask Eric Zemmour, who is sinking steadily after surging from 0% to 19% in the Autumn. The only exception to this rule seems to be President Macron, who continues to float serenely ahead of the pack on 23 to 25%.

All the same, Macron and his chieftains and supporters are worried. They are confident that the President would beat either Le Pen or Zemmour if they reached the second round. They are far less certain that he would beat Pécresse.

They know fully well that she appeals to a chunk of the electorate which dislikes Macron and would like a change, albeit not too much change. The prospect of a woman as President would, in itself, appeal to the perpetual French dissatisfaction with incumbents; there has been no female leader in France since the regent Marie de Médicis four centuries ago.

Pécresse, though more socially conservative and fiscally stringent than Macron, would also be more acceptable in a run-off to parts of the French Left — simply because she is not Macron.

But can she reach Round Two? Ultimately, in the first round, some of her advantages become handicaps.

A large part of the wider French Right and even her own party want radical change on crime, migration and Europe. Pécresse may be more socially conservative than Macron: she was once a leading figure in a movement to try to block gay marriage, though she now accepts “marriage for all” should not be challenged. But the French Right regard Pécresse, correctly, as a continuation of the centrist consensus which has survived, with a few twists and turns, from Chirac through Sarkozy, François Hollande and Macron.

And unlike Le Pen and Zemmour, Pécresse is a typical product of the French political elite. After jumping two classes at Sainte-Marie-de-Neuilly and gaining the top mark in the baccalauréat at the age of 16, she went to a leading business school and to the elite civil service college Ecole Nationale d’Adminisration (ENA). She then taught at the leading political school, Science-Po. She is pro-European and pro-business. She is married to an engineer-turned-senior-businessman and has three children.

As a result, the response by harder-line Républicains or by Zemmouristes to her victory at the weekend was brutal. They called her a “girouette” (weather-vane), “Valérie Princesse”, “Valérie Traitresse” and “Macron in a skirt”.

Perhaps anticipating this, Pécresse promised in her acceptance speech to be a new kind of President: one who would break with the past and keep promises. She also emphasised that, unlike Le Pen and Zemmour, she was capable of winning on 24 April and “turning the page on Macron”.

In truth, she will struggle in the next four months to keep her own party together, let alone unite the wider French Right. Even her acceptance speech was publicly criticised by the man she crushed 61-39% in the second round of Les Républicains’ primary.

Eric Ciotti, who represents Nice in the French national assembly, is closer in most respects to the views of Zemmour and Le Pen on Islam and migration than those of Pécresse. He complained that her victory oration omitted his most eye-catching proposal: a French Guantanamo for suspected Islamist radicals and an end to the “droit du sol” — the right to French citizenship of anyone born on French soil.

In response, Pécresse again rejected both those ideas but promised that Ciotti would be a big part of her campaign; her first visit was to his village in the mountains above Nice. It was a shrewd move and her political skills should certainly not be underestimated. Pécresse says she is “two parts Angela Merkel and one part Margaret Thatcher”. She is not, she says, une dame de fer (iron lady) like Thatcher but une dame de faire (a woman who gets things done).

Yes, she was given little chance by pundits (including this one) of winning the five-candidate primary last week. But she proved herself with talent and cunning.

The number of Les Républicains party members zoomed from 80,000 to 140,000 in the weeks before the vote as “sympathisers” handed over €30 in annual party dues. All five candidates had encouraged supporters, in effect, to buy votes. The Pécresse camp, with the enormous population of greater Paris behind it, “bought” the most (quite legally). And it undoubtedly had an impact: she beat the favourite, the former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, by only 1,200 votes in Round One to go forward in second place to round two.

Yet there were other factors, too. In the four televised primary debates, Barnier looked tired and grouchy; Ciotti slick and passionate. Pécresse, meanwhile, was calm, fluent and well-drilled. She appealed to the party’s hard Right wing by proposing two constitutional changes to make it easier for France to block migration and deal with radical Islam. She shone like a beacon in a deep pink jacket among the shiny dark suits.

But now comes the real campaign. And this is where her troubles could begin.

One way to look at this election is that France, like Gaul under Julius Caesar, has been divided into three parts. The Left — remember them? — still commands just under 30% of the votes. They are divided, irretrievably it appears, between seven different candidates: two Trotskyists, a Communist, two Socialists, a Green and the hard-left nationalist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. None, at present, has more than 11% of the vote. They are unlikely to get near the top four, never mind the top two, in the first round.

There is then a wide band of pro-European, pro-business, centre and centre-right — in effect politics as usual — candidates, taking in Macron but also Pécresse. They have maybe 30% to 40% support.

Finally, there is a chunk of just over 30% of far-Right and hard-Right voters who want to turn everything on its head. They are anti-European, ultra-nationalist and anti-migrant. They detest what they see as a Left-tinged media consensus against strong action to reduce European power, end migration, tackle crime and shackle Islam (not just radical Islamism). They include the supporters of Le Pen and Zemmour, but also a big slice of members and voters of Les Républicains — two-fifths of them judging by the result of last Saturday’s primary.

Eric Ciotti has said that, faced with a choice between Macron and Zemmour in Round Two, he would vote for Zemmour. Yet in 2017, Pécresse voted for Macron rather than Le Pen. She left Les Républicains two years later because she said they were drifting towards the far-Right, and only rejoined just before the primary. In other words, she and Ciotti are in the same party but not in the same ideological “third” of France.

To win next April, then, Pécresse has to persuade many hard-Right and far-Right voters to take another chance on a mainstream politician who says that she shares their anger and fears. She needs, above all, the Zemmour bubble to burst, but not to burst too much; she needs his supporters who have abandoned Le Pen to stay with him. Otherwise, Le Pen will return to an unassailable first round position, just behind Macron.

At the same time, Pécresse needs to reclaim some of the moderate, pro-European centre-right voters who now support the President. That will be difficult if she is also to make a full-blooded pitch to the Ciotti-Zemmour-Le Pen third of France.

Her BCBG cheerful toughness will appeal to some voters. It will enrage others. If she can find a way to balance all those things — and that is a big ask — the race for second place in the first round on 10 April could be a three-way tie until the finishing line. It could be decided by just a handful of votes. If Pécresse has those votes, she could beat Macron two weeks later.

What would that change in France? Not much. Pécresse would bring a change of style. She would be marginally tougher than Macron on migration. She would be less ambitious about France’s role in Europe and Europe’s role in the world.

But the fundamentals would change little. The deep political divisions in France would persist; they might even deepen. The real battle for the soul of France is coming — but probably not until 2027.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.