‘The right is back’: Gaullists pick female candidate Valérie Pécresse to take on Macron

France’s rightwing opposition party has chosen a female candidate for next year’s presidential election for the first time in its history.

Valérie Pécresse emerged victorious after two rounds of voting by members of Les Républicains that unexpectedly saw favourites including “Monsieur Brexit” Michel Barnier knocked out in the first vote last week.

Pécresse now faces an uphill struggle to impose herself on the presidential campaign, with the election a little over four months away, en 10 abril. Among her rivals will be Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist party candidate who is trailing in the polls and with whom Pécresse has regularly clashed over city hall decisions.

Supporters chanted “Valérie, Valérie” as the result of the poll of 150,000 party members was announced on Saturday afternoon showing she had beaten her hard-right rival Éric Ciotti by 61% a 39%. Neither had been a favourite to come through the first round.

Pécresse, 54, is currently president of the Île-de-France regional council, which includes Paris. She served as budget minister and higher education minister during Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007-12 presidency.

“For the first time in its history, our party will have a female candidate for the presidential election," ella dijo. “Between the outgoing president and me, there’s a difference in our natures. Emmanuel Macron has one obsession, which is to please. Me, I have only one passion, which is to do.”

Ella añadió: “Nothing is doomed. We are not condemned either to disorder or to decline. Our country is full of talent, full of energy.

“The Republican right is back … we will give our country back its unity, its dignity and its pride.”

During the party’s primary campaign, the main Les Républicains candidates veered from the party’s traditional centre-right territory towards the far right. Ciotti declared that he would hold a referendum to stop mass immigration and set up a “French Guantánamo Bay” to deal with terrorism.

Pécresse, who has described herself as “two-thirds Angela Merkel and one-third Margaret Thatcher”, had argued she was the candidate with the experience and prominence to take on Macron. As education minister, she faced down long-running street protests and university sit-ins to force through reforms to higher education. A former budget minister, she has, until now, been pro-European and moderate; she promises to focus on the economy and on building consensus if she makes it to the Élysée Palace, and has pledged to increase salaries and end the 35-hour maximum working week.

sin embargo, in an election campaign that has so far turned endlessly around the three I’s – immigration, integration, Islam – Pécresse has also hardened her line, promising laws to increase “domestic security and combat Islamic extremism”.

It remains to be seen whether she will move any further to the right, but in her victory speech on Saturday Pécresse appealed to voters “tempted by Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour” – the two far-right contenders who have dominated the campaign so far.

“There’s no need to be extremist to be combative, no need to be insulting to be convincing," ella dijo. “You know that the merchants of fear have never been capable when it comes to action, and in our history nobody who divided us has saved us.”

Pécresse, who was born in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, is a graduate of the now-dissolved École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), la grande école and hothouse for the country’s political elite, finishing an impressive second in her class. Even before then she had been a brilliant student, passing her baccalauréat a 16, two years early, and learning Russian at 15 while spending time at young communist camps in what was the Soviet Union.

“I followed propaganda courses and sang the Internationale in Russian,” she recalled afterwards. “From these trips, I was left with an attachment to freedom of thought, the idea that non-conformism is more rightwing than leftwing. And the language.”

France’s 2022 presidential election is a two-round vote, the first taking place on 10 April and the second two weeks later. The definitive list of candidates will not be known until March, when all candidates must submit a list of 500 signatures of support from the country’s mayors or specific elected officials. Hasta ahora, alrededor 20 people have officially announced their candidacy, including eight from the left.

Polls carried out before Pécresse was chosen as Les Républicains’ candidate suggest Macron is still expected to be re-elected next year, but the most likely scenario remains a second-round dual between the president and Le Pen, a repeat of 2017.

Before Pécresse’s victory, Xavier Bertrand – a former minister and now president of the northern Hauts-de-France region,which includes Calais – had been credited with the right’s best chance of unseating Macron, but even then most polls had him in fourth place after the first round, behind Le Pen and Zemmour.

The left, Entretanto, is divided and struggling. According to BFM TV’s Élyséemètre, an amalgamation of the main opinion polls, Hidalgo is trailing behind the Ecology-Green party candidate Yannick Jadot and the hard left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Zemmour will host his first election rally on Sunday evening, con 19,000 people expected. On Friday he unveiled his slogan: “Impossible n’est pas français” (Impossible isn’t a French word). Acerca de 50 unions, political organisations and anti-fascist associations have called for a demonstration in Paris to coincide with the rally, and police fear clashes.

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