Far-right perennial Marine Le Pen, Socialist Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo and conservative governor of the Paris region Valérie Pécresse each pose a unique challenge to the incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron. For the moment though, he has still not officially declared his candidacy, and Macron remains the favorite
to clinch a second and final five-year term.
The task before these women is large, but not impossible. In their bid to become France's first female president, they must beat a broad field of more than a dozen candidates in the first round of voting happening in early April. If no one receives a majority here, it will be down to the all-important second round between the top two candidates two weeks later.
With more female candidates from more of the mainstream political parties than ever before, this is potentially a watershed moment in French politics and society. And with the last president to win reelection being Jacques Chirac almost two decades ago, the French have been known to embrace something new as they did with the then-39-year-old upstart Macron, particularly if a challenger offers new solutions to intractable problems.
Now, after defeating a crowded field of established male politicians to win the conservative Les Républicains nomination last month, Pécresse has emerged as Macron's most significant challenger
. The center-right candidate has so far succeeded in appearing tough on crime and bent on preserving what many see as traditional values.
"The values of the right are values of authority, of reform, of courage, and that's what it's going to take," Pécresse told
a national radio audience in early December. "They say that when a woman comes in, authority dissolves. That is wrong. Like Golda Meir, or Indira Ghandi, they defend their people." She's also likened herself
to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Still, to win one of the two slots in the second round, Pécresse will need to find a formula that appeals to a broad segment of the increasingly narrowing French center while also attracting a chunk of those who've tilted toward Le Pen and the far-right.
In the last election five years ago, Macron and Le Pen managed to edge out an equally packed field of candidates. In the second round, Macron coasted to a landslide victory
, winning 66% of the vote compared to Le Pen's 34%. This time Le Pen is back with an added complication: She has her own far-right challenger with a devoted following.
The ultra-nationalist commentator and television host Éric Zemmour has catapulted into contention with a toxic Islamophobic platform which has seen him convicted twice
of inciting racial violence and hate speech. Indeed, I was at his campaign launch at the sprawling Parc des Expositions on December 5. A cross between a revival meeting and a call-to-arms, the launch erupted
Calling his new political party "Reconquest," evoking the 11th century Reconquista, when Christians drove Muslim invaders from Spain, Zemmour's platform shrewdly embraces slashing immigration and taxes, which has won him an audience even beyond the far-right. Le Pen, with her National Rally Party, has avoided most of Zemmour's more extreme rhetoric, but she and her father before her have had
a perpetual following for decades among those who espouse
"France for the French."
With these two candidates, each deeply at odds with the other, now dividing the long-standing minority of the total electorate that votes reliably hard-right, the path for either beyond the first round is hard to imagine.
That these candidates of the moderate and far-right have little to fear from the French left, which ruled France for 19 years under François Mitterrand and François Hollande, is a tribute to the reality that this particular arc of the political spectrum is now largely in tatters. None of the left's candidates, scattered across parties ranging from Communists to Greens, is polling above the single digits
This includes the third prominent woman, Hidalgo, nominee of the once-ruling Socialists. Hidalgo has made it her mission to tackle Paris's traffic pollution by creating lanes exclusively for bicycles, scooters and joggers, and boxing motor vehicles into ever narrower stretches. But the resulting fierce traffic jams have not driven commuters into the subways or bike lanes as hoped, instead igniting criticism
of her methods. Outside of Paris, Hidalgo is little known beyond her plans for traffic management and mismanagement of the city's budget, its debt doubling
since she arrived in office.
And then, of course, there is Macron himself. As France takes over the presidency of the European Union's six-month rotation among member states, Macron has positioned himself as the rightful heir to Merkel's long designation as Europe's leading figure. As Macron told the French in his New Year's message
: "I have worked and we have worked tirelessly for almost five years to ensure that France is listened to and respected in Europe and in the concert of nations. She is."
Whether French leadership of Europe goes down well with voters remains to be seen. Over the weekend, a European flag hoisted to the Arc de Triomphe to mark France's EU presidency was removed
hours later after sparking outrage from Euroskeptic far-right and right-wing politicians.
Elsewhere, Macron has had better success tackling the five waves of Covid-19 that have swept across France. A nationwide "pass sanitaire
" has kept French restaurants, theaters and sporting events functioning. This health pass has been described by experts as the "poster child
" for these kinds of mandates working in Europe. Indeed, after Macron announced plans for the pass in July, vaccinations spiked
Ultimately, France's election may well come down to the state of its health when the nation goes to the polls in April. Macron has staked his presidency on his handling of Covid-19. The far-right has all but uniformly caviled with the tough measures, even the widely-accepted pass sanitaire. "Punitive measures that make no sense," Le Pen sniffed
. Pécresse, attempting to trod the fine line between left and right that she hopes will win her votes from both camps, has urged
"other measures," while Hidalgo has condemned
lockdowns and supported broader vaccinations.
The race for president is on with a never-before-seen field of female candidates all hoping to make French history. In the end, the French have always accepted the winner, unquestioningly and universally. And that's one fundamental strength once shared but now lacking on the other side of the Atlantic.