Opinion: the race to become the first woman president of France is still tight

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The vivacious far-right Marine Le Pen, the socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and the conservative governor of the Paris region Valérie Pécresse each pose a unique challenge to the outgoing president, President Emmanuel Macron. For the moment however, he has still not officially declared his candidacy, Macron remains the favorite to win a second and final five-year term.

The task that awaits these women is great, but not impossible. In their bid to become France’s first woman president, they must beat a wide range of more than a dozen candidates in the first round of elections which take place in early April. If no one gets a majority here, it will be the turn of the very important second round between the first two candidates two weeks later.

With more female candidates than ever in more traditional political parties, this is potentially a watershed moment in French politics and society. And with the last president to be re-elected Jacques Chirac almost two decades ago, the French are known to embrace something new as they did with Macron, then 39, especially if a challenger comes up. new solutions to intractable problems. .

Now, after defeating a group of established politicians to win the Conservative nomination from the Republicans last month, Pécresse has emerged as Macron’s most important challenger. The center-right candidate has so far managed to be tough on crime and has focused on preserving what many see as traditional values.
“The values ​​of the right are values ​​of authority, of reform, of courage, and that is what is needed,” Pécresse told a national radio station in early December. “They say that when a woman comes in, authority dissolves. This is wrong. Like Golda Meir or Indira Ghandi, they defend their people.” She has also compared herself to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

However, to win one of the two places in the second round, Pécresse will have to find a formula which pleases a large part of the increasingly narrow French center while also attracting a part of those who have leaned towards Le Pen and the far right.

In the last elections five years ago, Macron and Le Pen managed to get ahead of an equally dense field of candidates. In the second round, Macron scored a landslide victory, winning 66% of the vote against 34% for Le Pen. This time, Le Pen is back with an added complication: she has her own far-right challenger with a dedicated following.
Ultra-nationalist commentator and television host Eric Zemmour has catapulted himself into the fight against a toxic Islamophobic platform that has seen him twice convicted of inciting racial violence and hate speech. Indeed, I was at his campaign launch at the sprawling Parc des Expositions on December 5th. Halfway between a wake-up call and a call to arms, the launch escalated into brawls.
Calling his new political party “Reconquest”, reminiscent of the 11th century Reconquista, when Christians drove out Muslim invaders from Spain, Zemmour’s platform artfully embraces reducing immigration and taxes, which has garnered an audience even beyond the far right. Le Pen, with his Parti du Rassemblement National, has avoided most of Zemmour’s more extreme rhetoric, but she and her father before her have had a perpetual following for decades among those who espouse “France for the French”.

With these two candidates, each deeply at odds with each other, now dividing the long-standing minority of the total electorate who reliably votes to the right, the path for one or the other beyond. the first round is hard to imagine.

That these candidates of the moderate extreme right and the extreme right have little to fear from the French left, which ruled France for 19 years under François Mitterrand and François Hollande, is a tribute to the reality that this particular arc of the political spectrum is now largely in tatters. None of the left-wing candidates, scattered in parties ranging from Communists to Greens, vote above the numbers.
This includes the third prominent woman, Hidalgo, a candidate for the formerly ruling Socialists. Hidalgo’s mission is to fight traffic pollution in Paris by creating lanes exclusively for bicycles, scooters and joggers, and by enclosing motor vehicles in increasingly narrow sections. But the resulting ferocious traffic jams did not push commuters into subways or cycle lanes as hoped, instead sparking criticism of its methods. Outside of Paris, Hidalgo is little known beyond his plans for traffic management and mismanagement of the city‘s budget, as his debt has doubled since coming to power.
And then, of course, there is Macron himself. As France takes the presidency of the six-month rotation of the European Union between member states, Macron has positioned himself as the rightful heir to Merkel’s long designation as Europe’s figurehead. As Macron told the French in his New Year’s message: “I have worked and we have worked tirelessly for nearly five years so that France is listened to and respected in Europe and in the concert of nations. ‘is.”
It remains to be seen whether the French leadership of Europe will please voters. Over the weekend, a European flag hoisted over the Arc de Triomphe to mark the French EU presidency was withdrawn hours later after sparking outrage from far-right and right-wing Eurosceptic politicians.
Elsewhere, Macron has been more successful in dealing with the five waves of Covid-19 that have swept through France. A nationwide “health pass” kept French restaurants, theaters and sporting events running. This health pass has been described by experts as the “child witness” of this type of mandate working in Europe. Indeed, after Macron announced plans for the pass in July, vaccinations increased.
Ultimately, France’s election may well come down to her health when the nation goes to the polls in April. Macron has bet his presidency on his management of the Covid-19. The far right fought almost uniformly with the harsh measures, even the widely accepted health pass. “Punitive measures that make no sense,” snorted Le Pen. Pécresse, trying to cross the fine line between left and right which she hopes will win her votes on both sides, called for “other measures”, while Hidalgo condemned the closures and supported broader vaccinations .

The presidential race is launched with an unprecedented peloton of candidates who all hope to make French history. In the end, the French have always accepted the winner, unconditionally and universally. And it is a fundamental force that was once shared but which is now lacking on the other side of the Atlantic.

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