French rightwing candidate focuses on immigration as she slips to fifth in polls


The rightwing presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse has promised to rewrite the French constitution in order to fight crime and illegal immigration, as she tried to boost a flagging campaign that risks her party imploding if she fails to reach the final round next month.

“I want to show that I’m ready to govern,” Pécresse told journalists in Paris, vowing to “restore order to the streets and to the public accounts”.

Shortly afterwards, Pécresse’s team announced she had Covid and would be stepping back from public appearances for the next few days.

Polls this week showed Pécresse sinking into a damaging fifth position. The mood is palpably tense in Les Républicains, the traditional rightwing party of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, which could break apart amid ideological in-fighting if Pécresse does not make it to the second round final on 24 April.

An Ipsos poll for France Info and Le Parisien this week placed Pécresse as low as 9.5% in the 10 April first round, far behind the centrist president Emmanuel Macron, on 29.5%, and the far-right Marine Le Pen, on 18.5%, who are predicted to make the final. Pécresse has also sunk behind the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on 12.5%, as he gains ground, and the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, on 11%.

In Paris, Pécresse was asked about voters preferring the far-right to her programme, no matter how much she hardens her stance on immigration. She said: “My programme is more precise than theirs, it has all the fundamentals to end illegal immigration.”

She said the aim now was to fight against abstentionism and to win over voters by arguing for her party’s experience and budgetary rigour.
Pécresse said her changes to the constitution would introduce minimum prison sentences for some crimes, quotas for immigration, and limit the Muslim headscarf in some public spaces, including banning headscarves from players in sporting events. No headscarves would be worn by mothers accompanying schooltrips, she said. She referred to her own clampdown on full-body swimsuits as head of the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris and the surrounding area, saying: “There will be no burkinis in the swimming pools of the Republic.”

Pécresse is trying to stop party sympathisers choosing Macron, whose programme covers similar ground to hers on certain issues, including raising the retirement age to 65.

Éric Ciotti, a party hardliner who had run against Pécresse in Les Républicains’ internal primary race, declined to answer a question on the health of his party, saying: “I’ll respond to that on the day of the first round.” But he added that the debate “is still open” in the presidential race.

“It’s not all wrecked for the right,” Xavier Bertrand, another former rival in the primary race, told French radio this week, saying the last 10 days of the campaign would be crucial.

Olivier Rouquan, of Paris University’s centre for administrative and political sciences, said: “It’s clear that if Les Républicains don’t get to the second round of the presidential election, it will be hard to avoid an implosion.”

He said that a number of lawmakers for the party might be tempted to jump to Macron’s camp in order to secure re-election in the June parliamentary elections. “There will be a recomposition of the right and some of Les Républicains will take part in that, but not as we know the party – another political force will emerge … The party will be weakened if Valérie Pécresse doesn’t get to the second round.”

He said Pécresse’s difficulties began with the fact that she won her party’s primary by a narrow margin so was having to accommodate competing party views. Added to this, the far-right Le Pen was holding the centre of gravity on the right in the polls. Pécresse was also struggling to “embody” the campaign and place her ideas at the centre of the public debate.

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Olivia Wilson
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