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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Fear and laziness explain Pécresse’s disastrous French election start

Valérie Pécresse, French presidential candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains party, gave what was described as a 'make or break' speech at a campaign rally over the weekend. It did not go well. John Lichfield analyses the problems behind her campaign.

OPINION: Fear and laziness explain Pécresse's disastrous French election start
French Les Republicains presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse gives a speech during her meeting at the Zenith de Paris. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP)

Valérie Pécresse was at the Zenith on Sunday but her  jumbled, panicked and clueless campaign sank to a new nadir.

The Pécresse rally at the giant, Zenith concert hall in northern Paris was supposed to relaunch the hopes of a floundering centre-right candidate who is widely seen as the only contender who can beat Emmanuel Macron in the presidential run-off on April 24th.

If she gets past Round One on April 10th, that is…

READ ALSO Who’s who – the candidates challenging Macron for the French presidency

Far from reviving her fortunes, she and her campaign managers and speech writers went to enormous trouble to organise a 90-minute, slow-motion train-wreck.

Valérie is no orator? OK. D’accord.  Let’s make her stand behind a podium and two teleprompters in a space bigger and more intimidating than anything she has addressed before in 20 years in politics.

Valérie has been abandoned by significant figures from the moderate wing of her party, Les Républicains, who accuse her of veering to the anti-European, xenophobic right?

Fine. Let’s write a speech in which she attacks the European Union and name-checks the dotty, far-right theory that immigration is a plot for the “great replacement” of white people.

LISTEN: The Local’s French election podcast

Pécresse delivered her speech with excruciating clumsiness: grinning in the wrong places and scowling like a child playing an angry teacher when she criticised Macron. She would have been more at ease if she had been allowed to walk around the stage, chatting to the 7,000 howling supporters. The crowd, far from being wound up by her rhetoric, sounded as if they were doing their best to re-wind their flagging heroine.

At one point, Valérie Pécresse claimed, not for the first time,  to be “two parts Angela Merkel and one part Margaret Thatcher.” She came over as nine parts Liz Truss and one part Hillary Clinton.

Does it really matter? How many people watched the speech on a TV news channel on a fine Sunday afternoon? How many people go to campaign meetings these days?

I believe it does matter, for three reasons.

First, campaign meetings of this kind are supposed to energise the electoral foot-soldiers who are still important in the social media age. If the candidate cannot energise her own troops, how can she win the war?

Secondly, the Big Speech format may be suited to Donald Trump or to Marine Le Pen and, in a different register, to Emmanuel Macron. It is very well suited to the hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a great and funny orator in the old, rabble-rousing style who spoke earlier in the afternoon at his own rally in Montpellier.

Set-piece oratory is utterly unsuited to Pécresse, a competent but understated woman who is much more at ease in a debate or in a TV studio. Sunday’s calamity reinforced the impression that Pécresse has been taken hostage by her own campaign, which is trying to force her to be something that she is not.

Finally, there was the jumbled, self-contradictory content of the speech itself.

Pécresse (or whoever wrote her script) attacked all “extremists”, in other words her far-right rivals Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. She said, quite rightly, that they preach “nostalgia and disorder”. Then she went on to give credence to the conspiracy theory pedalled by Zemmour that migration is a plot to replace white populations.

She promised to cut taxes and reduce the size of the state but also pledged to rebuild public services which have, she said, been dismantled by Macron. In sum, she accused Macron of zig-zagging (fair enough) but gave no fixed idea of what her own presidency might look like.

Two factors explain this calamity: fear and laziness.

The main centre-right party Les Républicains (LR) is running scared of Zemmour, whose xenophobic and pseudo-intellectual narrative of 200 years of French decline appeals to part of the centre-right electorate.

LR, lineal descendant of Gaullism, is split between its pro-European, moderate conservative and its Eurosceptic, anti-migrant wings. Pécresse belongs naturally to the first; her campaign has been hijacked by the second.

As for laziness, the old French centre-right has spent decades fighting amongst itself. It has put very little effort into thinking of a convincing new, conservative narrative to put before the French people.

This institutional laziness has tripped up Pécresse on more than one occasion. Her many embarrassing gaffes have been rooted in poor preparation by her party and her campaign staff. Last week she complained that 40,000,000 people a year entered the EU illegally. This turned out to be the figure for all legal entries, including tourists.

Small wonder that several figures from the moderate wing of Les Républicains have jumped ship in recent days and joined President Macron’s still undeclared campaign. Two of the most important of these figures, the former budget minister, Eric Woerth and the Mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, are close to the former centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The ex-President was a dazzling absentee from the Zenith rally. He has yet to endorse Pécresse. He seems to be manouevering in the background – to help Macron not the candidate of the party that he founded.

His complex motives, personal and political, will have to be the subject of another column. It is possible he will still back Pécresse but, according to Le Figaro, he has dismissed her campaign as “all over the place” and “non-existent”.

As things stand, Pécresse has around 15 percent of first round support. Le Pen is just ahead of her; Zemmour is level with her or just behind. Macron remains far in the lead on 24-25 percent.

If Zemmour edges ahead of Pécresse in the polls in the next week or so, some of her support could melt and divide between Macron and Zemmour.

She is right about one thing. Only she has a realistic chance of beating the President in the two-candidate second round  – not Le Pen and certainly not Zemmour.

Electoral politics abhor a done deal. Surprises are always possible, especially in such unstable times. But the way that things are shaping up, Macron might have “won” the election before he formally enters it (probably next week).

Read all the latest election news and analysis in our 2022 French presidential election section HERE.

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POLITICS

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What’s in France’s 2023 budget?

France's finance minister has unveiled the government's financial plans for the next year, and says that his overall aim is to 'protect' households in France from inflation and rises in the cost of living - here's what he announced.

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What's in France's 2023 budget?

The 2023 Budget was formally presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, before economy minister Bruno Le Maire announced the main details to the press. 

The budget must now be debated in parliament, and more details on certain packages will be revealed in the coming days, but here is the overview;

Inflation – two of the biggest measures to protect households from the rising cost of living had already been announced – gas and electricity prices will remain capped in 2023, albeit at the higher rate of 15 percent, while low-income households will get a €100-200 grant. The energy price cap is expected to cost the government €45 billion in 2023.

EXPLAINED: What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Property renovations – the MaPrimeRenov scheme, which gives grants to householders for works that make their homes more energy-efficient, will be extended again into 2023, with a budget of €2.5 billion to distribute.

Income tax – the income tax scale will be indexed to inflation in 2023, so that workers who get a pay increase to cope with the rising cost of living don’t find themselves paying more income tax. “Disposable income after tax will remain the same for all households even if their salary increases,” reads the 2023 Budget.

Pay rises –  pay will increase for teachers, judges and other civil servants as inflation is forecast to reach 4.3 percent next year after 5.4 percent in 2022. Around €140 million is assigned to increase the salaries of non-teaching staff in schools. 

New jobs – nearly 11,000 more public employees will be hired, in a stark reversal of President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign promise to slash 120,000 public-sector jobs – 2,000 of these jobs will be in teaching. 

Small business help – firms with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2 million will also benefit from the 15 percent price cap on energy bills in 2023. The finance ministry will put in place a simplified process for small businesses to claim this aid. In total €3 billion is available to help small businesses that are suffering because of rising costs. 

Refugees – In the context of the war in Ukraine, the government plans to finance 5,900 accommodation places for refugees and asylum seekers in various reception and emergency accommodation centres. The budget provides for a 6 percent increase in the “immigration, asylum and integration” budget.

Cigarettes – prime minister Elisabeth Borne had already announced that the price of cigarettes will rise “in line with inflation”.

Ministries – Le Maire also announced the budget allocation for the various ministries. The Labour ministry is the big winner with an increase of 42.8 percent compared to last year, coupled with the goal to reach full employment by 2027. Education gets an increase of €60.2 billion (or 6.5 percent more than in 2022), much of which will go on increasing teachers’ salaries, while the justice and environment ministries will also see increased budgets.

Conversely, there was a fall in spending for the finance ministry itself.

Borrowing –  the government will borrow a record €270 billion next year in order to finance the budget. “This is not a restrictive budget, nor an easy one – it’s a responsible and protective budget at a time of great uncertainties,” said Le Maire. 

The government is tabling on growth of one percent, a forecast Le Maire defended as “credible and pro-active” despite an estimate of just 0.5 percent GDP growth by the Bank of France, and 0.6 percent from economists at the OECD.

The public deficit is expected to reach five percent of GDP, as the EU has suspended the rules limiting deficit spending to three percent of GDP because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Parliament

The budget plans now need to be debated in parliament where they are likely to face fierce opposition. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party and its allies lost their majority in elections earlier this year.

Macron also plans to push ahead with a pension reform that would gradually start pushing up the official retirement age from 62 currently, setting up a standoff with unions and left-wing opposition parties.

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