French conservative Pécresse holds big presidential rally

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Conservative presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse gestures during a campaign rally, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022 in Paris. Less than 60 days from the first round, Valerie Pecresse, 54, is struggling to take off in the polls despite having had an initial boost last year when she was picked to be the French conservatives' first female presidential candidate. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS – A conservative politician vying to become France’s first female leader is hoping to boost her declining fortunes in the campaign so far with her first major rally.

Less than 60 days from the April 10 first round of France's presidential election, Valérie Pécresse, 54, is struggling to take off in the polls — despite having had an initial boost last year when she was picked to be the French conservatives’ first female presidential candidate.

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The fact that Pécresse has not held any major launch rallies like other candidates, owing to earlier concerns over soaring omicron infections, seems to have hurt her. She is stalling in popularity behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen and frontrunner President Emmanuel Macron, who has still not officially declared his candidacy. All potential candidates must do so by March 4.

On Sunday in the Zenith Arena in Paris, Pécresse, tried to reverse that stall. To chants of “Valerie” and “We will win!” the head of the Paris region and former conservative minister brandished her credentials for France's top job to thousands of supporters.

“Even if you fail, it means you’ve tried ... I’m this indomitable French woman. Nothing will stop me!” she said to cheers.

An experienced politician, Pécresse has been the French minister for higher education, for the budget and was a government spokesperson under former President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.

In the often tough-talking speech, she again backed a hard stance on immigration, apparently seeking backing from both conservatives and the far right. She said the symbol of France, Marianne, “was not veiled” and has said that people who entered the country illegally should be deported.

On Sunday, she went even further in her rhetoric, defending the idea of building “walls” to seal off the borders of the 27-nation European Union.

“If we have to build walls like some states do, I would support them. I want us to fight together against immigration that leads to areas beyond France. If a country refuses to take back its illegal immigrants, with me there will be zero visas,” she said.

A supporter of the EU, Pécresse left The Republicans party in 2019 amid leadership divisions after the party had a poor showing in EU elections. She rejoined the party last year.

She also tried to cast herself as strong on families, promising a substantial increase in small pensions and pledging to slash inheritance taxes for many and hire an extra 25,000 caregivers. Pécresse said her first action as president would be to end France’s 35-hour workweek so employees can work and earn more.

If elected, Pécresse vowed again to break with the centrist policies of incumbent Macron, who is expected to seek a second term. She has also warned voters against backing far-right candidates, arguing that only the conservatives can unite the French people and ease political tensions in the country.

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