(Bloomberg) -- France’s Republicans nominated their first woman presidential candidate in a primary that sharpened the focus of the challenge facing Emmanuel Macron in next year’s election.
Valerie Pecresse won the final round of the conservative’s ballot on Saturday after 61% of members backed her. Eric Ciotti, a lawmaker from southern France often compared to far-right rival Eric Zemmour, took 39%.
By selecting the Paris region leader over Ciotti, the party of General Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy opted against joining the crowded battle for the extremist vote and instead chose a candidate who can compete with Macron for moderate voters.
Pecresse, 54, is wagering that she can reinvigorate the party that was set to reclaim the presidency in 2017 until her predecessor, Francois Fillon, was undermined by a corruption scandal that opened the door to Macron.
“What’s striking is that this seemingly old-fashioned right has picked a woman,” said Bruno Jeanbart, a pollster at Opinionway. “This will represent a powerful change.”
An adviser to Macron’s government said recently that Pecresse could pose a serious threat to his re-election. The president declined to comment on the ballot during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.
Pecresse said Saturday she would save public services including hospitals, schools and the legal system, defend social justice, reassert the value of work, raise France’s global standing and reform Europe.
“Dear friends, the Republican right is back,” she said. “The right of convictions, the right of solutions is united.”
The latest Ifop poll published Nov. 28 showed Pecresse with 10% of votes, in fourth place behind Macron on 25%. His longtime rival and nationalist leader Marine Le Pen polled 19.5% and Zemmour, 15%.
Pecresse polled highest among people 65 and older, who tend to be the most frequent voters, as well as right-wing voters.
Opinionway’s Jeanbart said the way forward for her is to court those who think Macron hasn’t done enough on security, immigration and reining in public finances, while also convincing Le Pen’s supporters that she has greater chances of winning.
It’s what Sarkozy, Pecresse’s former mentor, did in 2007.
That year, the Socialists picked Segolene Royal as the first woman to head its presidential ticket. Its 2022 candidate is Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The party dominated French politics along with Republicans until Macron’s centrist run.
A graduate of the prestigious postgraduate Ecole Nationale d’Administration, which Macron and several of his predecessors also attended, Pecresse lives in the affluent city of Versailles.
She held two ministerial posts, including budget, under Sarkozy. While France reached record public debt and a ballooning deficit during her mandate, Pecresse’s links to the last Republican president helped her build a national brand. In June, voters re-elected her to run Ile-de-France, France’s wealthiest and most populous region, by a wide margin.
She took swipes at Le Pen and Zemmour in her speech, saying there was no need to be extremist to be on the offensive and no need to insult in order to persuade voters.
She also had a at dig the president: “Emmanuel Macron has only one obsession: to please,” she said. “As for me, I have only one passion: to act.”
Watching from the sidelines were Marion Jacob Chaillet and Alexandra Szpiner, two councilors from Pecresse’s region. They described her as down to earth and close to the people.
“She has the pragmatism of women, essentially,” Szpiner said.
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