The decision by France’s Les Républicains (LR) to select Valérie Pécresse to represent them in next April’s presidential election represents a breakthrough of a kind. It is the first time that French conservatives have chosen a woman as standardbearer. Whether this can in turn produce a political breakthrough for the centre-right, out of office since Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012, is another matter.
Pécresse is potentially a strong candidate, but she faces the tough task of drawing support from two mutually antagonistic constituencies, on the right and in the centre. The candidate whom she defeated in the run-off round of the leadership ballot, Éric Ciotti, represents a politics scarcely distinguishable from the far-right propositions of Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. Ciotti was supported by almost 40 per cent of LR's members and uniting the party could require concessions from the more centrist Pécresse.
The key feature of French presidential elections is that they are two-round affairs. In the second, only the two top-placed candidates qualify. Opinion polling has for some time been suggesting the likelihood of a re-run of the 2017 second-round contest, between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. At the moment Pécresse, for LR, is polling in fourth place, well behind Macron, Le Pen and Zemmour. If she is to get to the second round she must take votes – a lot of votes from Macron in the centre, but also from the far right, and particularly from Zemmour, whose ultra-nationalist stance has a strong appeal for voters from the Gaullist tradition. It might be possible to do one of these things; doing both together will require the most delicate political skills.
As centre-left and centre-right self-destructed in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election, Macron slipped through the middle to claim a surprise victory. If he meets the same opponent again, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National, he will almost certainly be re-elected. The greatest threat he faces is the candidature of Valérie Pécresse, but at this stage her route to the second round appears unclear.