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Pecresse emerges as favourite to win French centre-right’s presidential ticket

By Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) -Valerie Pecresse, a moderate conservative who served as minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, will go into a runoff as favourite to be picked as the centre-right Les Republicains’ candidate in the French presidential election in April.

Pecresse will face Eric Ciotti, a staunch right-winger among the party ranks, in the runoff. The winner will head the party’s bid to return to power for the first time in a decade.

The centre-right, which traces its origins back to Charles de Gaulle, dominated French politics for much of the post-war era but has struggled to heal divides and recast its identity since centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election win redrew the political landscape.

In a surprise result in the first round, Ciotti came first among the five challengers with 25.6% of votes cast by registered members. Pecresse, who heads the greater Paris regional authority, took 25%.

However, Pecresse emerged as frontrunner in the runoff as the three other candidates swiftly threw their support behind her. The winner will be declared on Saturday afternoon.

Ciotti entered the race as an unfancied runner, often viewed as an outlier within the party as his no-nonsense talk on restoring the state’s authority and defending France’s national identity flirted with far-right ideology.

“I wanted to ensure this campaign was based on the truth, the truth about this country’s decline,” Ciotti told reporters.

Pecresse is more moderate than Ciotti though she and her rivals for the ticket all drifted further to the right on immigration and law and order as voter surveys have shown the far right reaching the presidential run-off against Macron.

Pecresse has said she would halve the number of residency permits for non-EU migrants, stiffen judicial sentences in ethnically-diverse zones where police have lost control, raise the retirement age to 65 and cut 200,000 public sector jobs.

The eventual candidate’s challenge will be to carve out a space in a crowded field on the political right.

Macron’s centrist government siphoned moderate conservatives from the centre-right, including his finance minister and former prime minister. It cut taxes on businesses and the wealthy and encroached on the right on matters of security and immigration.

Meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen softened her Rassemblement National party’s anti-immigrant, eurosceptic stance to broaden its appeal among traditional centre-right voters. She now finds herself outflanked by Eric Zemmour whose discourse on Islam and migration has polarised the country.

Opinion polls before Les Republicains’ first-round vote showed Ciotti would perform weakest of the five in the April presidential election, with 6% voter support nationally.

They projected Pecresse would win 10%, behind Macron and two far-right leaders, Le Pen and Zemmour.

Xavier Bertrand, who voter surveys had shown would pose the biggest danger to Macron in a runoff vote, came fourth in Les Republicains’ vote with 22.4% of support.

Macron has not formally declared his candidacy though few analysts doubt he would win. Polls predict he would beat any challenger in a second-round vote, but by a slimmer margin than the trouncing he gave Le Pen in 2017.

(Reporting by Richard Lough;Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Tassilo Hummel, Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)


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