Gaullists make their pick

The Republicans, France’s Gaullist or centre-right party, finally have a presidential candidate. Valérie Pécresse, premier of the Île-de-France region, was chosen at the weekend by a vote of party members, winning with 61.0% of the vote in the second round. In just over four months time she will attempt to beat Emmanuel Macron to become the first female president of France.

As is often the case with ballots like this, it was the first round that really mattered. Pécresse had 25.0%, just behind Éric Ciotti on 25.6%, but ahead of Michel Barnier with 23.9% and the favorite, Xavier Bertrand, on 22.4%. Less than 3,000 votes separated first and fourth; the fifth candidate, Philippe Juvin, was well back with 3.1%.

So the virtues and vices of two-round voting were both on display. The party’s members were able to focus on a single choice in the second round, rather than the multiple comparisons involved in a preferential ballot, and they had the benefit of some additional time for reflection and to consider the views of the three eliminated candidates, all of whom endorsed Pécresse.

On the other hand, the top four were so close together that it’s by no means certain that a preferential ballot would have produced the same result. Preferences from Bertrand could easily have put Barnier ahead of Ciotti, and if Ciotti had been eliminated then it’s possible Barnier would have beaten Pécresse. But the voting system foreclosed on that possibility.

Pécresse at age 54 was the youngest of the five as well as the only woman. She is clearly on the party’s moderate or centrist wing, but like Barnier she has tacked rightwards during the campaign, particularly on immigration. As is common in centre-right parties, the membership at large is somewhat to the right of the leadership – as evidenced by the strong support for Ciotti, the most conservative of the candidates, who featured hardly at all in prior speculation.

Only a few months ago, Pécresse was nowhere to be seen in the betting market for the presidency, despite the presence of such unlikely names as François Hollande and Marion Maréchal Le Pen. Now as the endorsed Republican she has jumped to second-favorite, 6-1 at Sportsbet: still a long way behind Macron, at 5-2 on.

Does she have a serious chance? The polls have her down around the ten per cent mark, behind not just Macron but also the two rival far-right candidates, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, both polling in the teens. But the underlying strength of the centre-right is substantial; in regional elections earlier this year it polled about 30% nationwide. Now that she is the undisputed standard-bearer, Pécresse is in a position to tap more of that support.

Like the other challengers, what she ideally wants is for Macron to be knocked out in the first round, leaving her to face a more extreme candidate (on either left or right) in the runoff. If that’s her goal, she needs to appeal most of all to voters in the centre.

But that is not her only potential path to victory. None of the other challengers – Le Pen or Zemmour, or Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot or Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left – have a realistic chance of beating Macron in a runoff. But Pécresse would have a fighting chance; hypothetical polls have shown Bertrand (when he was thought the most likely Republican nominee) snapping at his heels. One poll in mid-October put them dead level.

Getting to the second round won’t be easy. But if the far-right vote remains split, and Pécresse can stake out a position that appeals to some if its support without alienating the centre, it’s well within the bounds of possibility. It looks like being a very interesting few months.

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