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France’s Iron Lady

Can Valérie Pécresse reunite the right and defeat French President Emmanuel Macron?

Valérie Pécresse gives a talk at a Paris high school.
Valérie Pécresse gives a talk at a Paris high school.
French politician Valérie Pécresse gives a talk at a high school in Paris in 2019. Daniel Pier/NurPhoto via Getty Images
By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.

“The right is back,” Valérie Pécresse solemnly declared after securing the conservatives’ nomination in the French presidential election slated for April. The 54-year-old, who compares herself to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the last hope for a party in deep trouble. France’s traditional right, which is currently known as the Republicans, never recovered from its ruinous defeat in 2017, when (for the first time in nearly 60 years) it failed to qualify for the final round of a presidential race. Just months ago, it was in disarray, mired in internal divisions and unable to leave a mark on the campaign.

But after Pécresse unexpectedly beat four other contenders in a primary last month, becoming the center right’s first-ever female presidential candidate, the party’s chances have dramatically improved. The latest polls show her neck-and-neck with far-right leader Marine Le Pen to qualify for a second round against French President Emmanuel Macron, who is widely expected to seek reelection and for now tops the polls with about 25 percent of the vote. For a fleeting moment, just after her nomination, Pécresse was even pegged to win any runoff.

“Before the primary, the right was in a catastrophic situation; it had almost disappeared from the political scene,” said Rémi Lefebvre, a political scientist at the University of Lille and Sciences Po Lille. Now, he said, “the scenario of a final showdown against Macron is becoming possible again.”

“The right is back,” Valérie Pécresse solemnly declared after securing the conservatives’ nomination in the French presidential election slated for April. The 54-year-old, who compares herself to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the last hope for a party in deep trouble. France’s traditional right, which is currently known as the Republicans, never recovered from its ruinous defeat in 2017, when (for the first time in nearly 60 years) it failed to qualify for the final round of a presidential race. Just months ago, it was in disarray, mired in internal divisions and unable to leave a mark on the campaign.

But after Pécresse unexpectedly beat four other contenders in a primary last month, becoming the center right’s first-ever female presidential candidate, the party’s chances have dramatically improved. The latest polls show her neck-and-neck with far-right leader Marine Le Pen to qualify for a second round against French President Emmanuel Macron, who is widely expected to seek reelection and for now tops the polls with about 25 percent of the vote. For a fleeting moment, just after her nomination, Pécresse was even pegged to win any runoff.

“Before the primary, the right was in a catastrophic situation; it had almost disappeared from the political scene,” said Rémi Lefebvre, a political scientist at the University of Lille and Sciences Po Lille. Now, he said, “the scenario of a final showdown against Macron is becoming possible again.”

With many candidates bursting into the political arena with few or no ties to traditional political parties, Pécresse almost seems like an establishment relic. Five years ago, Macron resigned from the Socialist government and won the presidency at the helm of a movement he had cobbled together just months before; last fall, far-right candidate Éric Zemmour surged in the polls—and still attracts significant media attention despite being a former television pundit with no ties to any major party.

Pécresse, in contrast, has made her whole political career with the conservatives, rising from advisor to member of parliament to cabinet minister and finally to head of the region around Paris. Opponents, though, point to her privileged upbringing as the embodiment of elitism. She grew up in tony Parisian suburbs and went to private school, then graduated from HEC Paris—a top business school—before finishing second in her class at the famed École Nationale d’Administration, the factory for France’s top civil servants.

As a girl, she spent a lot of time with her maternal grandfather, a renowned psychiatrist whose patients included novelists Romain Gary and André Malraux, as well as the elder daughter of future French President Jacques Chirac. But her father, a university professor, and her mother, a secretary, were hardly part of the richest 1 percent. At school, “the daughters of top managers in my class looked at me with a tad of condescension,” she recalled in a 2019 book.

Her family was, for the most part, Gaullist and conservative but not radically right wing. Several relatives were involved in the resistance against the Nazis—her maternal grandfather even hid a British aviator in his house during the war and would later receive the Legion of Honor for his involvement in the maquis, a World War II French resistance group.

Still, like many in France, her parents were for a time seduced by Socialist French President François Mitterrand, who served from 1981 to 1995. They let teenage Pécresse spend her summers at communist youth camps in the Soviet Union to improve her Russian, a language she decided to learn after falling in love with the works of writers Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Boris Pasternak. Seeing firsthand what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain—she would later recall the “endemic poverty, the queues for empty stores,” and “the weight of propaganda and censorship”—made her a firm anti-communist.

Many in her family had voted for Chirac in previous elections, and she had crossed paths with him at her grandfather’s home, but Pécresse’s first real encounter with the future president took place in 1994 at the Legion of Honor ceremony, held at the prime minister’s residence. Chirac, the mayor of Paris at the time, was having a hard time politically and was off in a corner of the room. Then-27-year-old Pécresse introduced herself and sat next to him throughout the event. At the end of the day, Chirac planted the seed for the first time: “Are you not interested in politics?”

A few years later, she joined Chirac’s team at the Élysée Palace as an advisor, and the then-president guided her through the first steps of her political career. When she decided to run for parliament in the early 2000s, Chirac had some unusual advice, she later recalled. “Chirac told me: ‘Give me a kiss.’ I was very embarrassed. I shyly offered him a cheek. He grabbed my shoulders and bellowed: ‘That’s not it! It must be done with the entire body, like this!’ and he gave me a vigorous hug, Chirac-style. He added: ‘You will be on the ground a lot. People will want to kiss you, and take advantage of it. It will save your hand.” 

Pécresse won a seat in parliament, and later, under Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, she became higher education minister and then budget minister. She currently runs the region of Île-de-France, which surrounds Paris and is the country’s largest and richest region. She won her second attempt at parliament in 2015, ending 17 years of rule by the Socialists, and won reelection last summer, shortly before announcing her run for president.


French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse

French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse acknowledges her supporters in Paris on Dec. 11, 2021. Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Five years ago, Macron used his youth to present himself as the embodiment of change. Now, with a female nominee, the Republicans hope to show they finally got the memo on gender equality.

“She has never said ‘vote for me because I’m a woman,’” said Geoffroy Didier, her campaign’s communications director. But her being chosen as the conservative candidate “is a sign of modernity in a country that has had 25 male presidents,” he said.

“She is owning the fact that she is a woman,” said Sophie Primas, a Republican senator and friend of Pécresse’s, who noted how in one of her first major speeches as party nominee, Pécresse insisted on France’s need for “tenderness.” A choice of words that “would have been seen as odd” if a man had done the same, Primas said.

Her task now is to patch up a party that’s split between moderates and hard-liners on issues such as immigration, the place of Islam in French society, and economic policies. She must also bring back the many Republican voters that, over the years, have been siphoned away by Macron on one hand and by the far right on the other, said Pascal Perrineau, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. 

Going for both types of voters at the same time “is a difficult task but not an impossible one,” he said. Right after her nomination, polls suggested she was attracting voters from both sides, though her rise has plateaued in recent weeks.

Her recipe: a hard-line campaign on far-right flagship issues, such as immigration, Islam, and security—which she often binds together—and, at the same time, taking the mantle of economic liberalism from Macron. Her electoral manifesto opens with a pledge to “stop the current immigration and defend our Republic’s values” and includes classic right-wing proposals, such as introducing migrant quotas, accelerating the repatriation of undocumented migrants, and beefing up funding for the police and justice system.

“French public opinion has shifted towards the right on these issues,” Perrineau said. Far-right candidates Le Pen and Zemmour together tally an unprecedented 30 percent in the polls, according to POLITICO Europe.

In early January, Pécresse pointedly promised to “clean up” crime-ridden suburbs with a “Kärcher,” a brand of pressure washer very popular in France. The term has been highly controversial since it was first used in the mid-2000s by Sarkozy, then-interior minister, in similar circumstances. This week, the German company issued a statement urging “an immediate halt of all uses of its trademark” in the French presidential campaign.

But her pivot rings hollow to many hard-liners. “Her position on security and immigration has evolved in the right direction since she became a candidate,” said Jacques, a 68-year-old retiree who declined to give his last name, as he rested on a bench in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Paris suburb where Pécresse was born. “But I’m still going to vote for Zemmour. He is the one leading the debate, the one really in tune with the French,” he said.

Pécresse is also nodding to the far right on France-European Union relations, an issue her party has long maintained a certain ambiguity for. Last fall, amid a row between Brussels and Poland over whether EU law trumps member states’ constitutions, Pécresse backed the supremacy of national “constitutional identities.” Months later, when on Dec. 31, 2021, the European flag was hoisted under Paris’s Arc de Triomphe without the French flag alongside it to mark the start of France’s presidency of the EU, she joined radical right candidates in denouncing an attempt to “erase French identity.” 

But while Le Pen, who draws much of her support from the more disadvantaged social classes, has backed generous spending on various welfare programs, Pécresse is presenting herself as the standard-bearer of small government and fiscal restraint—a way to keep the door open to the kind of pro-business, upper-middle-class voters that have been torn between the Republicans and Macron in recent years. 

Pécresse accuses Macron of “raiding the till” during the coronavirus pandemic and vows to push through a controversial overhaul of the pension system—which Macron tried several years ago, triggering a wave of paralyzing strikes, before abandoning the idea when COVID-19 hit. Pécresse also plans to cut public spending by $51.5 billion a year, slash around 200,000 public jobs, reduce unemployment benefits, and create an “axe committee” to thin out regulatory red tape.


Nicolas Sarkozy and Pécresse visit the Taj Mahal in New Delhi,

Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and advisor Valérie Pécresse visit the Taj Mahal in New Delhi in January 2008. Alain BENAINOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

When Pécresse makes references to Thatcher and Merkel, Primas said, “she mainly means that she is inspired by two women who kept their promises and held the reins long enough to straighten up their countries.” But there’s more Iron Lady than German Mutti in Pécresse’s government record.

In 2007, Sarkozy appointed her higher education minister to reform how French universities work. It was a surprising career move for a Chirac follower who had initially seen Sarkozy and his camp as enemies within the party and was not part of his inner circle. But making universities more independent from the central government had been a conservative mantra at least since the 1980s, and Pécresse never hid her disappointment at Chirac’s failure to do so.

Pécresse would later say when taking the job, she was perfectly aware of the risks of a position that “since 1968 has been an ejector seat for anyone trying to bring about change,” but she accepted the challenge out of a longstanding interest in academia and the conviction that it needed wide-ranging reform. She pushed through a divisive bill granting a higher degree of autonomy to universities over their budget, recruitment, and curriculum. Her project to “Americanize” French universities, which allowed them to seek additional funding from the private sector, sparked huge backlash from students and teachers, wary of a corporate approach for public education. Protests and tensions went on for months. 

“They burned my effigy in the Sorbonne’s auditorium,” she later recalled, recounting how she was comforted by right-wing former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé: “It happened to me too,” Juppé said. “You’ll see; it doesn’t hurt.”

Jean Fabbri, a mathematician who squared off with her when he was a union leader, said Pécresse adopted “a populist logic, which came straight from President Sarkozy. It basically went: ‘Higher education and researchers are very expensive for the Treasury, and with what results?’” 

Despite some concessions, the reform remained largely in place, and Pécresse’s supporters cite the episode as an example of her determination and right-wing pedigree. “She hung tough in the face of nine months of street unrest,” Didier said. Critics note the promised inflows of private cash hardly materialized, and reform did nothing to improve French universities’ rankings globally. 

Years later, as head of the Paris region, Pécresse created controversial “regional security brigades” to police high schools in some neighborhoods, tried without success to exclude undocumented immigrants from a discount on transit fares, and banned the use of the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit worn by Muslim women and a hot-button issue in France, with many seeing it as incompatible with the country’s secular traditions.

The Pécresse camp also touts her management of the region’s finances. “We have reduced operating costs while investments have exploded,” boasted Othman Nasrou, Paris regional vice president and longstanding Pécresse ally. But opponents underscore the slow renovation of the region’s aging schools and transit infrastructure, saying Pécresse’s budget consolidation crusade has often come at the expense of the Île-de-France people, with debt reduction getting priority over quality of services. 

“For her, the main virtue when leading a community is bringing public spending under control,” said Maxime des Gayets, leader of the Socialist opposition in Île-de-France’s regional council. Opening the region’s public transit network to competition has also driven some bus drivers to strike over pay cuts and worsening working conditions. 

Yet, Pécresse’s record is praised by many, well beyond the center right. In a poll published in June 2021, 68 percent of respondents said they were happy with Pécresse’s results, and her reelection bid last year was endorsed by her Socialist predecessor. 


Her seeming appeal beyond the base may also be because she hasn’t entirely disavowed her moderate roots. During the Republicans’ internal contest ahead of the 2017 election, she decided not to back former French Prime Minister François Fillon despite their close personal and political ties due to his ultra-liberal economic agenda. Over the following years, she felt increasingly uneasy as the Republicans veered toward the hard right, and she ultimately left the party after its debacle in the 2019 European elections. She only became a member again last October, ahead of the primary.

Now that she is in charge, Pécresse has leavened her belt-tightening with a few “social Gaullist” proposals, such as increasing salaries of 12 million French workers, with the public Treasury footing part of the bill, and reinforcing employee ownership schemes, pushing more companies to include their own workers among their shareholders. On issues like gay rights and abortion, Pécresse belongs to the party’s moderate wing. She is pro-choice, and despite having joined rallies against the legalization of gay marriage in 2013, she now says she doesn’t plan to repeal it if elected president.

That studied ambiguity on what she really is—on how the liberal, social, and conservative components of the French right combine to shape her political persona—may be precisely what the party needs. 

“She manages to get people with shared values but very different sensibilities to work together,” Didier said. “That’s the way the right has always succeeded in the past, and that’s how Valérie Pécresse has always governed.” 

Still, French presidential campaigns are notoriously unpredictable. At this time five years ago, Fillon was still the front-runner before seeing his chances dashed by accusations of financial wrongdoing. Whether Pécresse wins or loses in April, she has already brought the Republicans back from the dead and into the thick of the presidential campaign. A party that just months ago seemed doomed to irrelevance is now seen again as a serious contender, one of the biggest threats to Macron’s reelection.

“She used to be told: ‘It’s not the right time’ to become an MP. ‘It’s not the right time’ to become the head of the region. ‘It’s not the right time’ to run for president,” Primas said. “I think she has shown, with her tenacity and talent, that it was the right time.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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