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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

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.

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