She wants to run like Margert Thatcher but rule like Angela Merkel - is France ready for a female president?

French President Emmanuel Macron's bid for re-election could finally face a serious challenge after the meteoric rise of Valerie Pecresse, with one poll putting her on 52 percent in the run-up to next year's elections. 

Pecresse, a Paris council leader, was seen as an unlikely contender. However, after being chosen as a candidate by the Republicans party over the weekend, she has dramatically climbed up the polls. 

Wielding power as a conservative minister during the tenure of former President Nicolas Sarkozy and over France's richest and most dynamic region of Paris, Pecresse has become a household name in France. 

When the French public was asked who they would vote for in the second round if the challenger was Macron, more than 52 percent sided with Pecresse according to a poll conducted by BFM TV, one of France’s largest TV stations. 

France's volatile political landscape means that there are several challengers vying to topple Macron, whose approval ratings hover around 55 percent. But, until Pecresse, Macron had good reason to be hopeful. For one, he could paint contenders like the right-wing leader Marine Le Pen as extremists who couldn't be trusted to run the state.

Even the rise of Eric Zemmour, who has been described as being to the right of the far-right and France's answer to Donald Trump for his inflammatory and racist language against immigrants, Muslims, and other minorities – wasn't much of a threat to Macron who could present himself as a calm and steady force leading the French state on the international scene. 

Pecresse presents an altogether different challenge. 

A threat worthy of its name

As well as being the first woman presidential candidate of the party led by Charles de Gaulle and Jacque Chirac, Pecresse can present herself as a credible centre-right challenger from an established party. 

Macron knows well the dangers an outsider from an established party poses. In recent years the French electorate has flirted with several leaders, giving them the boot after one term. 

In voting for Macron in 2017, the French public flirted with novelty when he set up a new party months before running and managed to win. 

Could a disgruntled French public tired of Covid-19 and a leader who promised to rule like Jupiter, the Roman god of gods - find the novelty of a country being led by a woman more appealing? 

On cultural fault lines, Pecresse has burnished her credentials during her time in Paris. In 2019 she proclaimed, "it's time to say loud and clear that the burkini has no place in France." She was speaking about a swimming suit worn by Muslim women that covers the whole body. 

Pecresse argued that enforcing a bikini swimsuit was necessary to "leave women free." That sort of rhetoric has currency in France, which increasingly views millions of Muslims as a threat.

Her campaign during the primaries was staunchly nationalist and on the right, vowing to "restore French pride" and steer France away from "collapse." 

She has described herself as one-third Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative British Prime Minister and two-thirds German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

She promised radical reforms like scrapping the 35-hour work week, raising the retirement age to 65, and cutting more than 200,000 public sector jobs while building more nuclear reactors. 

Given France's history of strikes and direct action by unions that crippled so much of Macron's early presidency, it's difficult to know how Pecresse will achieve the reforms she believes France so badly needs and where others have failed. 

Pecresse promises that she will rule with the consensual and humble approach of the German leader Merkel. 

When asked about the difficulty her premiership could face, she told reporters, "I won't flinch. I have a project for a clean break, a project for the unashamed right."

Now French voters will decide if they will flinch.

Source: TRT World