“In ten years’ time, will we still be the world’s seventh power? Will we still be a sovereign nation or an auxiliary of the United States, a branch office of China? Will we be a united nation or a fragmented one? Faced with these vital questions, there is no fatality. Neither the great replacement nor the great decline. I call on you to take action.” Surrounded by a sea of seven thousand French flags, standing on a stage in front of a trio of 4 meter tall wooden planks in the colors of France and lit by red, white and blue lights, Valérie Pécresse said these words that would make the headlines of all major newspapers on that evening of February 13th. Two months before the French presidential elections, the hopes were high on the Zenith arena, situated on the suburbs of Paris and filled with supporters that came from all over France to see what was supposed to be the kickstart of a campaign that would lead the right-wing candidate Pécresse to become the first female president of the republic.
Now, less than a week before the elections, these hopes are gone, and this part of Pécresse’s speech perfectly summarizes all that went wrong with her campaign. Back in February, she was well-positioned at the polls, tied for second place with Marine Le Pen, and performing better than her in second-round scenarios against the incumbent Emmanuel Macron. The reasoning behind her supporters’ hopes was clear: at some point in the campaign, those supporting candidates further to the right, like Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, would end up pragmatically switching to Pécresse for the sake of defeating Macron. Now, she has fallen clearly behind Le Pen and even the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and is currently tied for 4th with Zemmour. Even worse, she currently performs worse than Le Pen and just as bad as Zemmour in a theoretical second-round scenario against Macron.
The repercussions of that February rally greatly help to understand this fall. The day following the rally, the newspaper Le Parisien published a piece entitled “Great replacement: the itinerary of a polemical expression, from the far right to Valérie Pécresse,” and Le Figaro titled “SOS Racisme denounces Pécresse’s comments on the ‘great replacement,’” presenting the official statement on the topic by one of France’s largest NGOs. The ‘great replacement’ is a far-right conspiracy theory that implies a deliberate replacement of the white population of Europe by African and Middle-Eastern people. Supposedly, this replacement is being orchestrated by European elites. First introduced by the French far-right author Renaud Camus and popularized by Eric Zemmour, the theory has also motivated the white-supremacist terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. Faced with an enormous amount of criticism for using this expression that was dominating the news, Pécresse had to backpedal. The next day, she tried to explain that she was criticizing the use of the theory itself and was not invoking its content. The problem here was not only that the explanation never has such a distant echo as the comment itself but that it exemplifies the lack of coherence and firmness that characterized all of her campaign.
One could imagine a strategy behind referring to such a controversial theory during her speech. Go a fair amount to the right and signal an openness to ideas of the far-right to win some of their voters and guarantee a place in the second round. Then, by still being seen as less radical than Le Pen or Zemmour, generate less backlash and rejection than they would, and win the race. Le Pen’s father, Jean Marie, and Marine have already made it to the second round, he in 2002 and she in 2017, but both never stood a chance of winning. Their radicalness prompted all other voters to unite behind their opponents – Jacques Chirac back in 2002 and Emmanuel Macron in 2017 – in the so-called “republican front.” The results were only 18% for Jean-Marie and 34% for Marine. Pécresse would not spark such outrage, therefore having much better chances.
Her speech was also a nod to the far-right in other crucial ways. On immigration, she promised “zero visas,” to “build walls like the United States, if necessary,” and to assimilate migrants so they become “French in the heart and not just on paper.” Mentioning the ‘great replacement’ might have been one step too far, but that is not the mistake in itself. Valérie Pécresse is trying to be a kind of right that does not exist anymore. Just as big of a mistake as mentioning the conspiracy theory was backpedaling. The likes of Le Pen and Zemmour – and one might even include Mélenchon here – gain much of their support not necessarily from their radicalness itself but from the reactions their positions receive in the media and from experienced politicians; the establishment, as it became infamously known. By bowing down to their critiques, Pécresse reminds the voters of something she would instead want to hide: she is and has always been part of the establishment.
Her national political career began twenty years ago when she became deputy of the National Assembly after graduating from the ENA and Sciences Po and having worked at the State Council. After that, she was minister of higher education and research from 2007 to 2011, budget minister until 2012, national deputy again, and has been governor of the Île-de-France region since 2015. Daughter of a very high-level telecommunications businessman and married to Jérôme Pécresse, president of Alstom Renewable Power, she also has a net worth of 10 million euros. Moreover, even though she founded her own party in 2019, her coalition is sustained by the traditional Les Republicains, which has roots that go back all the way to Charles de Gaulle.
All of these facts would have been assets – and not liabilities – two elections ago, but much has changed on the right side of the spectrum since then. The demographic coalition that supported Nicolas Sarkozy – France’s last president of the traditional right – has completely eroded. For instance, economic liberalism no longer has to be tied to social conservatism. Society progressed, and social conservatism lost ground in the mainstream, especially amongst the youngest. In France, this allowed Emmanuel Macron to occupy a place in the center that merges social progressiveness with liberal economic proposals, attracting especially the 20-30% of the electorate with higher income and education and more progressive views on cultural issues and migration. Meanwhile, the 5-15% higher-income conservatives turned to Zemmour, while the 10-20% with a lower income turned to Le Pen. The 5-15% share left for Pécresse are thus those with higher income not liberal enough to support Macron and not conservative enough to go all the way to Zemmour. Trapped in this middle, she has nowhere to run.
This became clear already in the primaries of Les Republicains, where Éric Ciotti, one of the congressmen of the party that most openly flirts with ideas of the far-right, came first in the first round of voting. Pécresse made it to the second round, and, backed by the establishment of the party, won it fairly easily, but not without adding more troubles to her campaign. A few months after the vote, the newspaper Libération published an investigative report that pointed to dozens of fraudulently registered voters, including people who had already passed away and a dog named Douglas, that rendered inspiration for this incredible twitter-page.
Punctual mistakes and setbacks like this one during the trail do explain the size of her fall, but they don’t tell the full story. A look back at her campaign shows us that Valérie Pécresse represents a kind of right that is unwilling to change, signaling a lack of knowledge of their own ideology. A conservatism that doesn’t change along with society becomes reactionary. Those who embraced this change went with Macron, while those who did not sided with the other part of the Zeitgeist, viz. Le Pen’s and Zemmour’s (and Trump’s, Orbán’s, and Bolsonaro’s) anti-establishment reactionism. Fears of what this shifting of landscapes means for democracy, especially where and when the far-right is able to form a majority, are of course well-placed. Negating it, however, leads only to defeat.