France's conservative party on Saturday chose Valérie Pécresse, the moderate chief of the Paris region, to challenge President Emmanuel Macron next year, a choice that will likely have major influence on the shape of the campaign.
Members of Les Républicans (LR) in the primary run-off vote chose Pécresse, who will be its first-ever female presidential candidate and presents herself as a voice of moderation, over hardliner Éric Ciotti, party leader Christian Jacob announced.
Both had made the run-off after the first round of voting earlier this week upended expectations.
The favourites, ex-minister Xavier Bertrand and former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, were both knocked out and went on to back Pécresse.
"The party of (France's post-war leader) General (Charles) de Gaulle… our political family, will have a female candidate in the presidential election. I am thinking of all the women of France today. I will give everything to triumph," she said after the result was announced.
Pécresse won almost 61 percent of the vote among party members while Ciotti won just over 39 percent, Jacob said. Ciotti accepted defeat and immediately pledged to support Pécresse.
The result is being keenly watched by the Élysée.
While all opinion polls have shown the centrist Macron as most likely to win the election, the emergence of a strong candidate on the traditional right who gains momentum during the campaign would be a major factor. The incumbent has yet to declare a fresh bid but Macron is widely expected to seek re-election.
The campaign has so far been waged on the right, with Macron's government tacking rightwards over recent months with tough rhetoric on immigration and preserving France's secular system.
Although more moderate than Ciotti, Pécresse and her rivals for the LR ticket all drifted further to the right on immigration and law and order issues.
She campaigned on promises to halve the number of residence permits for non-EU migrants, stiffen judicial sentences in tough neighbourhoods where police are under pressure, and ban women accompanying their children on school trips from wearing a Muslim headscarf.
'The right is back'
Les Républicans failed to make the run-off in 2017, after its candidate, François Fillon, was felled by a graft scandal.
But the party, out of power since 2012, makes much of its status as the inheritor of the presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac as well as Charles de Gaulle.
"The Republican right-wing is back. It will fight with implacable will. France cannot wait any more," Pécresse said, promising to make France "respected in the world".
Historic vote on the French right. The Republicans have picked a female presidential candidate for the first time: Valérie Pécresse. She beat Ciotti by a convincing 61%. A former economy minister, traditional conservative, and énarque, she will be a tricky challenger for Macron pic.twitter.com/FuRetNrLTW
— Sophie Pedder (@PedderSophie) December 4, 2021
Striking the tone for her campaign, she added: "I understand the anger of a people who feel powerless against violence, Islamist separatism and uncontrolled immigration."
"I will not have a wavering hand against the enemies of the Republic," she added.
Ciotti has long argued for radical policy "disruptions" to protect a France he deemed at risk of losing its identity from immigration and economic decline, promising a "French Guantanamo" to hold suspected terrorists.
His rhetoric sometimes echoed that of the far-right pundit Éric Zemmour, who declared his candidacy this week. Ciotti said he would vote for Zemmour in a run-off against Macron.
The announcement of the candidate for Les Républicans means that the main contours for the April 2022 election are largely set.
Analysts believe Macron may wait to declare his intention to seek re-election for several more weeks before showing his hand to appear above the fray of day-to-day politics.
His main rival in the 2017 election, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, is standing again, while Zemmour's candidacy is a wild card that could yet have a major impact or simply fizzle out.
The left remains mired in disunity and communication problems, with the campaigns of the Socialist candidate, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, and Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, failing to make an impact. Both risk being outpolled by far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)