France's right-wing opposition Les Républicains have picked Valérie Pécresse to challenge Emmanuel Macron in next year's presidential election, marking the first time a woman was chosen to represent the party in a presidential contest.
Ms Pécresse won the final round of voting by the party on Saturday, with 61 per cent of ballots cast by party members in a closed election. Éric Ciotti, a politician from southern France often compared to far-right presidential rival Éric Zemmour, took 39 per cent.
"For the first time in its history, the party of General [Charles] de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, our political family will have a female candidate," Ms Pécresse said in a televised address after the result was announced. "We are going to restore French pride and protect the French people."
Polls show incumbent Mr Macron defeating nationalist leader Marine Le Pen in the run-off of April's presidential ballot. But Ms Pécresse, who is placing fourth in polls behind Mr Zemmour, has a chance of winning France's top job and returning the Republicans to power for the first time in a decade.
The mood among French voters has shifted to the right since the last election. And over the next four months, she could convince former Les Républicains supporters who voted for Mr Macron to return to the party while luring some voters from Mr Zemmour and Ms Le Pen. Mr Macron campaigned as an independent centrist in 2017.
An adviser in Mr Macron’s government described Ms Pécresse as a serious contender, and said she could be seen as representing the same kind of change he did.
Ms Pécresse and Mr Ciotti started out as underdogs but beat clear favourites Xavier Bertrand and Michel Barnier in the first round of the party primary on Thursday.
Mr Ciotti said after the results were announced that he would now campaign for Ms Pécresse.
The 54-year-old says she would halve the number of residency permits for migrants coming from outside the EU and toughen judicial sentences in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods. She would also raise the age of retirement to 65 and cut 200,000 public sector jobs.
Ms Pécresse is a career politician who served as education and budget ministers under Mr Sarkozy. Although France reached a record public debt and a ballooning deficit during her mandate, her links to Mr Sarkozy helped her build a national brand.
In June, Ms Pécresse was re-elected to run France’s wealthiest and most populous region, Île-de-France, by a wide margin.
She is known for her humour and for seeming to blurt out her thoughts. Asked about that recently, she replied: “There’s a misunderstanding with me, I’m blond.”
Ms Pécresse left her party for several years because she said it was flirting with the far-right, before returning to try and win the party’s nomination.
The candidate graduated from the prestigious postgraduate École Nationale d'Administration, which Mr Macron and several of his predecessors also attended, and lives in the affluent city of Versailles. Her challenge will be ditching the perception that she's privileged and out of touch with ordinary voters in the provinces. – Bloomberg