The conservative candidate in the French presidential election campaign, Valérie Pécresse, was believed to pose the most serious threat to Emmanuel Macron's re-election, because like him she can tap into votes from a broad section of the electorate. She was long tied for second place in polls with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
But last week, three stalwarts from Pécresse's party, Les Républicains (LR), deserted. The former cabinet ministers Éric Woerth and Christian Estrosi endorsed Macron, while Guillaume Peltier, the former number two in LR, joined the far right-wing candidate Éric Zemmour, who promptly made Peltier his spokesman.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the godfather of LR under whom Pécresse served as a cabinet minister, has so far refused to give her his blessing. Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, have several times dined at the Élysée with the Macrons.
In 10 years, will we still be the seventh power in the world? Will we still be a sovereign nation, or an auxiliary to the US, a colony of China?
Pécresse had counted on her first big rally, at the Zénith concert hall on Sunday night, to give her campaign a much-needed boost. But, faced with 7,500 cheering supporters, Pécresse was seized with stage fright. Her reading from a teleprompter was laborious, wooden, at times melodramatic.
Pécresse later admitted that there was “room for progress”. But, she added, “If you are looking for an orator, there will always be someone better than me. I am a doer.”
France is "at the crossroads", Pécresse said at the top of her speech. "For the first time, the fate of the world may be written without us. In 10 years, will we still be the seventh power in the world? Will we still be a sovereign nation, or an auxiliary to the US, a colony of China? Will we be united or divided as a nation? Nothing is inevitable, neither the great decline nor the great replacement. I call on you to react."
It was Pécresse’s use of Zemmour’s term “the great replacement” which threw her campaign into crisis.
"The 'great replacement' is neither myth nor a plot, but an implacable process," Zemmour wrote in his book entitled France Has Not Said Its Last Word. The term was coined by the extreme right-wing ideologue Renaud Camus, who supports Zemmour for president. It alludes to an alleged conspiracy by elites to replace France's white, Christian population with Arab and African Muslims. The theory was cited by the perpetrator of the anti-Muslim massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.
A few hours after Pécresse used the term, Zemmour gloated on TF1 television, saying, “I am the one who imposed this word. Now even Valérie Pécresse uses it.”
Pécresse took a beating at LR's weekly strategy meeting on Monday. Xavier Bertrand, whom she defeated in the LR primary last autumn, said, "We must clarify things . . . The 'great replacement' is not us." Jean-François Copé, a former leader of the party, told Pécresse that she "must not try to please everybody" and that she needs to represent an "uninhibited right" which "marks its separation from the extremes".
The Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure and the Socialist presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo accused Pécresse of "crossing the Rubicon" by evoking the great replacement. Faure said he was "astonished" to hear Pécresse "exploit the entire semantic and ideological range of the extreme right. Frankly, we already had two extreme right-wing candidates. We didn't need a third."
'I reaffirm that the laws of the Republic are above the laws of faith. When I am president of the Republic, no women will be subjugated'
Pécresse defended herself on RTL radio, noting that she had said the same thing – that the “great replacement” was not inevitable – many times during her campaign, and that no one had reacted previously. “When you listen to Éric Zemmour or Marine Le Pen, they tell you, ‘It’s done. It’s unavoidable.’ Not me,” she said.
Pécresse was also pilloried for saying that she wants “people who are French at heart, not just French on paper”. Anti-Semitic writers began using the term “French on paper” to refer to Jews in the late 19th century. It has been used more recently by the far right to describe all naturalised citizens.
Pécresse’s policies and rhetoric closely resemble those of the far right. “I defend France’s true identity,” she said. “Against those who want to establish sharia above our laws, I reaffirm that the laws of the Republic are above the laws of faith. When I am president of the Republic, no women will be subjugated. Marianne [the symbol of France] is not a veiled woman.”
Pécresse has fallen slightly behind Le Pen in first-round projections, while Zemmour is only one point behind the conservative candidate. The nightmare scenario for LR is that Pécresse may come in third, fourth or even fifth – if the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon rallies left-wing voters – in the first round of the presidential election on April 10th. That could decimate LR ranks in legislative elections in June.
Emmanuel Macron’s goal was to eliminate the left-right divide in France. He has virtually destroyed the Socialist Party. The mainstream conservatives may not be far behind.