PARIS — As president, the candidate said, she would “eradicate zones of non-France,” or neighborhoods with high crime, where “the little old lady is told to stay home” because there is a drug deal underway outside her apartment.
She would send in the army to help in the “Republican reconquest” of these areas where, she promised, offenders would be punished more severely under the law.
“We have to eradicate them,” she said during a prime-time debate, referring to the areas, “and that’s what I would do as president of the republic.”
It was not Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, who was speaking, but Valérie Pécresse, the center-right candidate in April’s presidential election.
Ms. Pécresse recently won the nomination of the Republicans — the successor to parties once led by Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac — by tacking hard right. She adopted the far right’s vocabulary, with its racial and colonial undertones, while proposing harsher penalties in high-crime zones for the same offenses as elsewhere, a policy that experts said would violate France’s bedrock principle of equality before the law.
But with the primary behind her, Ms. Pécresse — an otherwise moderate conservative who has often been compared to President Emmanuel Macron — now faces the difficult task of enlarging her support base. Pulled right by her own party and the far right, she must also speak to moderates and traditional conservatives less interested in the themes of immigration and national identity that have dominated the political campaign.
Still basking in her primary victory two weeks ago, Ms. Pécresse, the current leader of the Paris region and a former national minister of the budget and then higher education, has risen to second place behind Mr. Macron in the polls among likely voters in the election. For Mr. Macron, a challenge by an establishment figure like Ms. Pécresse could prove far more formidable than one by Ms. Le Pen, whom he easily beat in 2017.
The rise of Ms. Pécresse, 54, comes at an unsettled time in French politics. Until this past summer, most experts had expected a rematch of 2017, pitting Mr. Macron against Ms. Le Pen in the second round of France’s two-round voting system. But the emergence and rapid rise of Éric Zemmour, a far-right author, television pundit and now presidential candidate, has turned things upside down.
By severely weakening Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Zemmour’s candidacy has created a path for Ms. Pécresse to move past the first round and face Mr. Macron.
Like the president, Ms. Pécresse is a graduate of France’s top schools and is at ease speaking English in international settings. She, too, is regarded as pro-business and pro-Europe, even though she has criticized Mr. Macron for his spending and recently proposed cutting 200,000 government jobs. On social issues, though, she is considered more conservative than the president. She opposed gay marriage when it became law in 2013, though she has since changed her position.
Like others on the right and far right — who have railed against a supposed invasion of France by immigrants, even as arrivals have grown less in France than in the rest of Europe or in other rich nations worldwide in the past decade — Ms. Pécresse has taken a tough stance on immigration. Describing it as “out of control,” she said there was a link between immigration and the rise of Islamism, terrorism and crime. She has proposed putting quotas on immigrants by country of origin and category, and cutting social benefits for them.
The first woman nominated by the Republicans as a presidential candidate, Ms. Pécresse has mentioned former Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain in speaking about her own leadership.
Alexandra Dublanche, the vice president of the Paris region, who has worked with Ms. Pécresse for a decade, said the candidate was inspired by Ms. Thatcher as a “reformer and for her courage to get things done.” In Ms. Merkel, Ms. Pécresse admired “a long-term vision and the capacity to unite people behind her,” Ms. Dublanche said.
Ms. Pécresse’s victory in the primary was widely considered a surprise to political experts and to her opponents, including allies of Mr. Macron. She defeated four men, including two who had been described as clear favorites. Ms. Dublanche said Ms. Pécresse was “clearly” underestimated because of her gender.
In the first days after Ms. Pécresse’s victory, Mr. Macron’s allies scrambled for a strategy to counter her candidacy, but they are now emphasizing her positions during the primary.
“On issues like immigration, she is on the hard right or close enough to the extreme right,” said Sacha Houlié, a national lawmaker of Mr. Macron’s party.
Ms. Pécresse’s proposal to cut 200,000 government jobs was an example of the kind of austerity that would harm an economy recovering from the pandemic, Mr. Houlié said.
Some of Ms. Pécresse’s supporters say her gender could prove an asset against Mr. Macron, who despite emphasizing equality at the workplace during his presidency, has been criticized for governing with a small circle of men.
Female candidates of other parties made it to the second round of elections in 2007 and 2017, Mr. Houlié said.
“So I think it’s hype,” he said. “Yes, she’s a woman, and maybe it’s new for the right, which reflects their backward vision of French society. It’s normal for everyone else that women are in politics.”
But for now, Ms. Pécresse’s greatest challenge will be to manage the divergences within her own party and potential supporters, experts say.
Like the rest of French society, her party has moved further right in recent years, said Emilien Houard-Vial, an expert on the party who teaches at Sciences Po university in Paris.
“She is facing a stronger pressure on the right,” Mr. Houard-Vial said, adding that she would be expected to “give pledges” on issues like immigration, crime, national identity and “cancel culture.”
Traditionally, party leadershave drawn a clear line between their organization and the far right led by Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally, formerly known as the National Front.
Ms. Dublanche said that for Ms. Pécresse there was a “complete barrier” between her party and the far right.
But in recent years the lines separating the party from the far right have increasingly blurred. Eric Ciotti, the runner-up in the Republicans’ primary, said that in a hypothetical showdown between Mr. Macron and Mr. Zemmour, he would back the far-right television pundit and writer.
In fact, Ms. Pécresse quit her party in 2019 — coming back only in October — because she said at the time that she disagreed with its orientation under its leaders at the time.
“She herself quit the party because she disagreed with the growing shift to the right,” said Gaël Perdriau, a longtime Republican who was forced to step down as vice president a few days after Ms. Pécresse’s victory because of his criticism of the party’s tilt further right. “So I don’t understand why she would return to the party and promote the same kind of ideas she criticized in the past.”
During a prime-time debate during the primary, Ms. Pécresse adopted a studiously ambiguous position on the “great replacement” — a conspiracy theory that was popularized by Mr. Zemmour and that argues that France’s white Christian population is being intentionally replaced by African Muslims. The expression has been cited by white supremacists in mass killings in New Zealand and the United States.
“If she’s not clear on this theory of the great replacement, I can’t vote for someone who supports those ideas,” Mr. Perdriau said. He added that instead of “offering concrete solutions to social problems,” his party found a “scapegoat in the foreigner.”
“We can be representatives of authority, law and justice,” he said, “without lapsing into words that flirt with racism and hatred of the other.”