Failed Titanic: Dull Rally Intensifies Competition for Conservative Racer Valerie Pecres

Valerie Pecres’ first campaign rally was intended to revitalize a rebellious presidential bid due to defections and self-doubt. Instead, it exposed a major weakness of a conservative candidate who is not suited to the tumultuous world of campaign rallies.

Five years after wresting defeat from the jaws of victory, have French conservatives once again backed the wrong horse in the race for the Elysee Palace?

That nagging question is back to haunt the mainstream conservative Republican party after a bleak week that began with a series of high-profile defections and ended with a disappointing election rally at the Zenith Concert Hall in Paris on Sunday. Pecres, who won the party’s primary in December, also suffered humiliation this week when her former boss and conservative champion Nicolas Sarkozy criticized her campaign in private statements leaked to the press.

French presidential election © JowharSarkozy, the last conservative to win the 2007 presidential election, notably refrained from lending Pepres his support, reportedly angry at her failure to give him campaign credit. Instead, he offered her her advice during a face-to-face meeting on Friday, which Pecres described as “candid and warm.” So was François Fillon, the 2017 Conservative front-runner whose presidential candidacy was derailed by a “fake job” scandal involving payments to his wife.

According to Becresse, Sarkozy and Fillon told her: “Be yourself.”

But it was clearly not on Sunday, as the mild-mannered Bekris tried to transform into a fiery orator in front of a crowd of more than 7,000 flag-waving supporters in Zenith Hall. The conservative candidate sounded visibly uncomfortable during her hour-long address, at times adopting a militaristic tone and unnaturally deep voice to criticize Macron’s presidency, promise “New France” or praise the French tradition of “enjoying steak with a sprinkle of Good wine.”

As her lengthy speech drew to a close, all of Lee’s Republican officials were smiling and praising their candidate as they faced the cameras. But unofficially, the same officials criticized her performance, and some of them were almost entertaining. One of the influential parties likened the speech to the giant headline towards disaster. Another frankly stated to investigative media Mediapart – after minutes of enthusiastic applause – that “honestly, it was full.”

French presidential campaign: Pecresse promises ‘New France’ in first major rally

The next morning, Pécresse scrambled to limit the damage, saying that RTL radio was “more comfortable speaking directly to the French people” or in face-to-face interviews and discussions—formats that were, indeed, much better.

“I know a candidate who struggled with his first rallies and I think his name was Emmanuel Macron,” she said sarcastically, referring to the first campaign rallies of the current French president five years ago, when he mocked the centrist political novice with a hoarse voice. You’re looking for orators, and there’s a lot in the campaign. “I’m someone who gets things done,” she added.

>> Valerie Pecres: The Conservative ‘Bulldozer’ Who Vows To Bring Back France’s Pride

Trapped between Macron and the far right, Pecresse, the Paris region’s president and former higher education and budget minister, won her party’s nomination on a platform she called “the two-thirds Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel”. She has described herself as a “lady of action”, the woman who “gets things done” and a play on the French translation of “The Iron Lady” (La Dame de Vere), Thatcher’s nickname.

Opinion polls indicate that she is the only one with a chance of defeating Macron in the second round of the presidential election on April 24. However, her failure to energize conservative voters cast doubt even on her reaching a decisive run-off. Recent opinion polls have shown her support waning while her far-right rivals, including 2017 runner-up Marine Le Pen, have held out.

>> Explain: How are the two-round French presidential elections going?

Although still a formidable force in parliament and local government, Les Républicains are caught between an increasingly right-leaning incumbent president and a new dark horse on the far right: controversial critic Eric Zemmour, who has eaten up Marine Le Pen’s base and far-right leader. It is also drawing more traditional conservatives away, with Macron already occupying much of its economic platform and the far right stealing it over crime and immigration issues, Pécresse has to walk a tightrope to avoid bleeding support on both sides.

The delicate balancing act cost her a prominent backer last week when her former cabinet colleague, Eric Woerth, a key Sarkozy ally, threw his weight behind Macron, saying he did not agree with France’s “nostalgia and innervation” against France. Two other Sarkozy allies jumped in in the following days, and analysts say he is expected to do more in the coming weeks.

Party moderates may have been more annoyed Sunday by Pekeris’ reference to the “Great Replacement” theory – the conspiratorial belief that white Europeans are being deliberately replaced by non-white immigrants, inspiring far-right figures around the world, including the Brenton mass shootings in Christchurch Tarrant.

>> How France’s “Great Replacement” theory conquered the global far right

The conservative candidate deliberately made a vague reference to substitution theory in her speech on Sunday, saying she “has not given in to the great alternative” now taking place in France. She later said that she had been misunderstood, claiming that she meant to attack Zemmour for his frequent use of the phrase. But its critics are not convinced.

Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo – herself struggling in the polls – said the conservative candidate had “bypassed another Rubicon” by adopting the language of far-right conspiracy theories. “There are now three far-right candidates,” added her left-wing rival Christian Taubira, a former justice minister, bringing Pecres together with Le Pen and Zemmour. The anti-racist organization SOS Racisme also criticized the conservative candidate for far-right leaders, saying her words were “unbecoming of a major contender for the presidency”.

Pecres’ problems stood in stark contrast to the euphoric mood at Zemmour Camp on Monday as it claimed the lives of 100,000 members of the fledgling Reconquête! The Reconquest party, which was founded only two months ago by the previous critic and theorist.

Guillaume Peltier, another prominent dissident from the Republic, and Zemour’s spokesman said Pecres “made a huge strategic mistake by borrowing the words and ideas of Eric Zemour”. By doing so, Peltier added, she had given Conservative voters “a pass to vote.” [Zemmour]”.

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