Valérie Pécresse – a Challenger to Macron

Conférence de Valérie Pécresse : « Économie, entreprises et innovation : quels facteurs de croissance ? »
Conférence de Valérie Pécresse : « Économie, entreprises et innovation : quels facteurs de croissance ? »

The French presidential elections will take place on the 10 and 24 April, 2022. If, on the evening of the 10 April, no candidate gets an absolute majority outright – and this is the most likely scenario – the two best-placed candidates will qualify for the run-off round two weeks later.

An unusual election

What makes this election unusual is that the two historic parties in French politics will each be represented by a woman, Anne Hidalgo for the Parti Socialiste on the left, and Valérie Pécresse for Les Républicains, the right-wing party that is heir to the Gaullist movement. There is also another female heavyweight in the mix, Marine Le Pen, standing for the extreme-right Rassemblement National.

At the time of writing (5 March 2022), according to the French pollsters Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP), Anne Hidalgo and a plethora of other hopefuls were trailing badly while incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, though not yet officially a candidate, polled at 29% of voting intentions. Macron seems assured of reaching the second round and it will therefore be a close contest for second place between Marine Le Pen, polling at 17%, the maverick extreme-right Éric Zemmour at 12% and Valérie Pécresse at 14%.

Groomed for high office

So, who is Valérie Pécresse? She was born into an academic family (her father, Dominique Roux, is a prominent economist) and was herself a high achiever both at school and in higher education. She graduated from HEC, Hautes Études Commerciales, the most prestigious business school in France, and ENA, École Nationale d’Administration, the training ground for top civil servants and politicians (including Macron, who has since abolished that institution).

Perhaps most revealing is that, at the age of 15, she went to Communist summer youth camps in the USSR to learn Russian and later to Tokyo to learn Japanese whilst doing odd jobs to support herself. Described as hard-working and methodical, she keeps fit by playing tennis and, less predictably, boxing. After graduating from ENA in 1992, she taught law and joined the Conseil d’État, the body that acts as legal adviser to the government, where she stayed until 2015.

From youthful politics to presidential candidate

Politics beckoned. But which way to go? In 1981 at the age of 14, she was among the crowd in front of the Panthéon that applauded the election of François Mitterrand as the first Socialist president since the start of the Vth Republic in 1958. Seventeen years later, in 1998, during a period of cross-party ‘cohabitation’, she was offered a post as adviser to Lionel Jospin, Socialist prime minister under the right-wing president Jacques Chirac. She turned it down, however, and instead accepted President Chirac’s offer to join his team of advisers. If Pécresse was motivated by political ambition, she’d certainly made the right choice. By 2002, she had become an MP, having been parachuted into a safe right-wing seat, the Yvelines département near Paris.

Then followed a steady political ascension. In 2007, she was appointed Minister for Research and Higher Education and later Minister for Budget in prime minister François Fillon’s government, during Nicolas Sarkozy’s stint as president. She was then elected as a regional councillor and eventually, in 2015, president for Île-de-France, the richest and most populous region in France. She was, in fact, the first woman to hold that role. Fast forward to 2021 and we find her being chosen as presidential candidate by Les Républicains in an internal primary in which she defeated the EU negotiator Michel Barnier, among other contenders.

Finding her voice on the political spectrum

French political parties and groupings are more fluid than in the UK. In 2002, Pécresse was elected under the banner of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, later renamed Les Républicains. However, in 2017, following Macron’s surge from the centre ground and sweeping victory in both the presidential and the general elections, Pécresse founded Libres! – a liberal, europhile party. This was a calculated attempt to staunch the flow of voters drifting either (slightly) left towards Macron’s En Marche! movement or in the opposite direction towards Le Pen’s populist, anti-immigration Rassemblement National. She rejoined Les Républicains in 2021 in time to enter the primary which saw her selected as a presidential candidate.

Politically, she is classically conservative and has described herself as ‘two-thirds Merkel and one-third Thatcher’. She defends a liberal economy, including lower public spending and home ownership. She is in favour of a strong European Union, even though she opposed the superiority of EU law over national laws, a principle enshrined in the EU treaties. After Brexit, she advocated standing firm against the UK’s demands, remarking that “… when you leave [the EU] it must hurt”.  

On social issues the picture is more blurred. For example, she originally expressed opposition to equal marriage, even vowing to ‘un-marry’ gay couples, before backtracking and recognising that this would be an ‘inhuman thing’ to do.

Now that she is officially campaigning as the candidate of the traditional right, she faces the same pincer problem that led her to launch a new party in 2017. Ideologically, she is actually quite close to Macron – a Europhile and a proponent of economic liberalism – but she doesn’t carry a sufficiently distinctive message to win back all those voters that lent him their vote in 2017.

On her right, she is forced to take positions on the toxic, strident messages that are the stock-in-trade of both Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the ultra-populist Zemmour. At her launch rally on February 13th this year she was mocked for mentioning extreme-right rhetoric on immigration such as le grand remplacement (the supposed plot to replace ‘white’ French people with ‘immigrants’) without making it clear whether she agreed or disagreed with those views.

‘La Dame de Faire’

Valérie Pécresse’s words will chime with many women when she talks of the “humiliations she endured in silence” as she fought her way within a political world where sexism, though less in evidence, still very much existed. When she first stood in the regional elections her opponents on the left nicknamed her “the blonde”. She also noted that “If a man shouts, he’s a leader; a woman who gets angry is called hysterical”. She is quoted as saying that:

 “… there’s a certain boldness in standing a woman [as a presidential candidate] since it is a little transgressive, a taboo to break, for a right-wing party”.

But she is quick to add: “I’m not a feminist in opposition to men”.

One strong feature that she prides herself on is her ability to get things done and she relishes her Thatcher-echoing nickname, la Dame de Faire (‘The Doing Lady’ as opposed to the literal translation of ‘The Iron Lady’ which is la Dame de Fer). She will certainly need all the combativity she can muster to land punches in the right place, knock out her opponents, and convince the electorate in April.

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