Valérie Pécresse’s first major campaign gathering was meant to energise a sputtering presidential bid rattled by defections and self-doubt. Instead, it exposed a key weakness of a conservative candidate ill-suited to the raucous world of campaign rallies.
Five years after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, have France’s conservatives once again backed the wrong horse in the race for the Elysée Palace?
This nagging question has come back to haunt the mainstream conservative Les Républicains party after a dreary week that began with a string of high-profile defections and ended with an underwhelming campaign rally at the Zenith concert hall in Paris on Sunday. Pécresse, who won a party primary in December, also suffered a humiliation this week when her former boss and conservative champion Nicolas Sarkozy savaged her campaign in private remarks that were leaked to the press.
French presidential election © France 24
Sarkozy, the last conservative to win a presidential election back in 2007, has notably refrained from lending Pécresse his support, reportedly irked by her failure to credit him on the campaign trail. Instead he offered her words of advice during a face-to-face meeting on Friday, which Pécresse described as “frank and warm”. So did François Fillon, the 2017 conservative frontrunner whose presidential run was fatally derailed by a “fake job” scandal involving payments to his wife.
According to Pécresse, both Sarkozy and Fillon told her: “Be yourself.”
But “herself” she clearly was not on Sunday as the normally mild-mannered Pécresse attempted to morph into a fiery orator before a crowd of more than 7,000 flag-waving supporters at Zenith hall. The conservative nominee looked distinctly uncomfortable during her hour-long address, at times adopting a martial tone and unnaturally deep voice to lambast Macron’s presidency, promise a “new France” or praise the French tradition of “enjoying beef steaks with a splash of good wine”.
As her lengthy speech drew to a close, Les Républicains officials were all smiles and praise for their candidate when facing the cameras. But off the record, the same officials blasted her performance, mocking the style of her delivery – rather than the substance – with sexist overtones. One party stalwart likened the speech to the Titanic heading for disaster; another bluntly told investigative media outlet Mediapart – minutes after clapping enthusiastically – that “frankly, it was nul à chier” (it sucked).
French presidential campaign: Pécresse promises ‘new France’ at first major rally
The next morning, Pécresse scrambled to limit the damage, telling RTL radio she was “more at ease speaking directly to the French people” or in face-to-face interviews and debates – formats in which she has, indeed, fared significantly better.
“I know a candidate who struggled with his first rallies and I think his name was Emmanuel Macron,” she quipped, referring to the current French president’s first campaign rallies five years ago, when the centrist political novice was mocked for yelling his voice hoarse. “If you’re looking for orators, there are plenty on the campaign trail,” she added. “I’m someone who gets things done.”