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Conservative Valerie Pecresse is struggling in her bid to unseat Macron

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Valerie Pecresse describes herself as part Angela Merkel, part Margaret Thatcher. She is attempting to unseat French President Emmanuel Macron in April's voting there. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, the conservative politician is struggling.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Excited supporters of Valerie Pecresse cheered her at a packed Paris concert hall.

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VALERIE PECRESSE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The 54-year-old mother of three is now the face of a traditionalist party that's always been led by a man. Founded by Charles de Gaulle, luminaries of Les Republicains include Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Pecresse has a tough road ahead. But, says Hugo Zerbib, a supporter at her rally, it's not because of her gender.

HUGO ZERBIB: We are ready to have a woman president. This is really something that - yeah, that France is ready for. It doesn't change anything the fact that she's a woman.

BEARDSLEY: Pecresse's platform is pro-business and pro-nuclear energy. She supports a strong Europe that can stand up to China, Russia and the U.S. Her positions are nearly indistinguishable from those of race frontrunner President Emmanuel Macron. The two candidates also have similar backgrounds, says political journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET: She was born in Versailles, which is almost a caricature in France of a certain sort of conservative, discreet bourgeoisie. She graduated from the exact same elite government school that Macron did. She's the same style of, you know, efficient, very capable, slightly arrogant technocrat who are used to being in the corridors of power.

BEARDSLEY: Just two months ahead of the vote, the electorate is still very fluid, says pollster Mathieu Gallard. Polls show Pecresse has the most to gain and lose from voters in the center.

MATHIEU GALLARD: And we see that about 40% of Valerie Pecresse's voters say they could vote for Emmanuel Macron. So she can very well lose a big part of her voters to Emmanuel Macron.

BEARDSLEY: But 40% of his voters also say they could vote for her.

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PECRESSE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Pecresse points Macron as an opportunist and a weather vane at her rally. When he took the presidency five years ago, Macron claimed he was neither left nor right. He's clearly shifted right, leaving his center-left voters feeling abandoned. There is no candidate in the fractured left-wing landscape who has a real chance in this presidential race. Pecresse, too, is chasing a French electorate that's moved to the right, pushed by fears of radical Islam, insecurity and immigration. But she may be overdoing it.

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PECRESSE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In her latest rally, Pecresse mentioned the discredited, far-right conspiracy theory the great replacement. It contends that white Christian populations are being intentionally replaced by nonwhite immigrants. Though she was dismissing the theory, as a mainstream candidate, Pecresse was hugely criticized for uttering its name.

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ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That theory is a staple of this upstart candidate's campaign. Right-wing TV pundit Eric Zemmour's charisma and anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim discourse are electrifying crowds and turning a once predictable race on its head.

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ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The unlikely populist is from a Jewish family that emigrated from Algeria. He's running neck and neck with Pecresse and with the far-right standard bearer, Marine Le Pen. Zemmour is attracting conservative Catholic voters who've long shunned the Le Pen family and supported the mainstream right. Political analyst Christian Makarian says Zemmour could reshape French politics.

CHRISTIAN MAKARIAN: He's the game changer, potentially the game changer of the right. He's the only man who can reconciliate the far right and the classical parliamentary right.

BEARDSLEY: Of which Pecresse is the presidential candidate. What she lacks in charisma, she makes up for in hard work and experience. She's twice served as a cabinet minister and is currently president of the Paris region - France's largest and richest. But if she wants the country's top job, she'll have to beat Le Pen and Zemmour in the first round of voting and knock Macron out two weeks later in the runoff.

Eleanor Beardsley NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.