When Valérie Pécresse crossed rural France this summer, visiting farms and villages to escape what she called her grotesquely unfair image as a “blond bourgeoise” from Versailles, she promised to smash the French Republic’s glass ceiling. “I will be the first female president of France,” she told meeting halls to cheers.
Since Emmanuel Macron won the presidency in 2017 as a shock outsider with no election experience and a party put together in a few months, French politics has thrived on novelty. Pécresse’s supporters say her status as a woman is refreshingly new and makes her Macron’s worst nightmare.
Pécresse, 54, wants to stop Macron, the favourite, from being re-elected next spring. As the first woman ever to run for president for the male-dominated, traditional rightwing party of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, she is presented as new hope after a career of more than 20 years in frontline politics. Other female candidates are running on the left and the far-right, but Pécresse is a first for Les Républicains.
She was chosen as presidential candidate after fighting on a staunchly rightwing ticket of “restoring France’s pride and protecting the French”. She wants to “bring back authority” to the nation. She has promised to toughen justice and policing, crackdown on immigration and shrink the public sector. “I feel the anger of people who feel impotent in the face of violence and the rise of Islamist separatism, who feel their values and lifestyle are threatened by uncontrolled immigration,” she said in her victory speech.
Her proposals include halving the number of residence permits for non-EU migrants. She wants to hold a referendum to change constitutional law and introduce immigration quotas. She has promised to end the 35-hour working week, raise the retirement age to 65, cut 200,000 public sector jobs and build more nuclear reactors.
Pécresse had been traditionally considered on the moderate side of the centre-right, but in the Ile-de-France Paris region that she runs, which includes the high-rise suburbs around the capital, she has always promised a hard line on “law and order”. She banned “burkinis”, or full-body swimsuits, from outdoor leisure areas, and before France introduced same-sex marriage in 2013, during a tense political period of street protests by conservatives, she said she preferred a form of civil union instead of full marriage rights. She later changed her stance and said she would not go back on same-sex marriage.
Pécresse likens herself to Margaret Thatcher for bravery and a “firm hand”, but she aims to lead more like Angela Merkel, who she said was good at consensus and left Germany “richer, stronger and more united”.
Her strong point against Macron, her supporters say, is her experience as a budget minister trained in finance. According to her former boss Sarkozy, she is “obsessive” about the detail of her dossiers, and she has a background on the centre-right ground that the current president has come to occupy. Despite his drive to improve gender equality, Macron remains surrounded by largely male advisers and has appointed men to the highest positions in government. Pécresse’s team want her to make him look dated.
Her task is tough. Her party has traditionally been the rightwing party of government, but it lost the presidency in 2012. It faces competition from a growing far-right opposition – not only Marine Le Pen but also the TV pundit Eric Zemmour. Many voters and politicians from the party’s centre have jumped ship to Macron.
But Pécresse is a former senior civil servant who began her political career as an adviser to Jacques Chirac at the Elysée and shares the nickname often given to him of “the bulldozer”. She is known for difficult and epic election battles.
In her first parliamentary election in Yvelines, outside Paris, as a young unknown outsider, she beat a famous military general. In 2015, she led the right to victory in the traditionally leftwing Ile-de-France, which includes Paris and the surrounding area, the most populated and richest region in France.
Under Sarkozy, Pécresse held difficult cabinet positions, including as higher education minister facing down the worst street protests in years over an overhaul of the university system, when students blockaded themselves inside lecture halls. “I held out nine months against the street,” she said. “I took on the most dangerous reform of Sarkozy’s presidency, which no one else wanted to do.” Sarkozy later appointed her budget minister, a role in which she had to handle the fallout of the sovereign debt crisis.
Pécresse was born Valérie Roux in the smart town of Neuilly-sur-Seine to the west of Paris, into a family of Gaullist intellectuals. Her father was an economics professor, and her maternal grandfather was a leading psychiatrist who treated Chirac’s daughter for anorexia. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were active in the French Resistance and hid parachutists during the second world war.
Pécresse said she grew up as a “social Gaullist” raised on “republican merit”. Her father told her women could do as well as men. She skipped two grades in private school, won her baccalauréat at 16, went to France’s most prestigious business school and was later among the top students of France’s training school for senior civil servants.
She became an Elysée adviser in 1998, turning to politics in part because she wanted to counter the rise of the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen. She had married Jérôme Pécresse, an engineer who went on to work in business, and they have three children aged 18 to 25 whom she protected from media photographers.
She knows she must win back voters from the centre as well as the far right and is already adapting her language. In an echo of Macron’s 2017 campaign, she has promised to “change the system”.