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France’s Pécresse blasts Berlin and Brussels in presidential bid

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PARIS — French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse isn’t just taking aim at Emmanuel Macron — she’s also firing potshots at Germany and the EU.

Pécresse, the candidate of the conservative Les Républicains party in April’s election, bashed Brussels and Berlin this week at a lunch for business leaders at a club for Parisian elites.

“I’ll tell you something, the feeling I have when I look at Europe is that those who really have the power in Europe are the NGOs and the Germans,” said Pécresse, leader of the council that governs the Paris region.

For most of her career, Pécresse has been seen as something of a moderate within her party — technocratic, pro-business and pro-EU. That profile makes her very similar to Macron in the eyes of many commentators and political rivals — there were even rumors she might join his political camp a couple of years back.

But as she seeks to establish herself in a crowded field on the political right, Pécresse is stressing more hawkish — sometimes even Trumpian — talking points on issues such as migration and the EU.

At the lunch on Monday, she declared: “I want the French to regain the upper hand, we must go and defend French interests in Europe.”

Pécresse lies third in the presidential race on 16 percent, just behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen on 17 percent and a couple of points ahead of another far-right champion, Eric Zemmour, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. Second place would be enough to claim a spot in a second-round runoff vote, likely with Macron, who leads the field comfortably on 24 percent.

With Macron claiming the mantle of the most pro-EU candidate in the race, Pécresse’s more critical line on Europe reflects a desire to appeal to voters tempted by Le Pen or Zemmour and to hold onto the large portion of her own camp that has become more skeptical about the EU in recent years.

While there is often tension in Franco-German ties, mainstream politicians on each side shy away from blunt public criticism, given the importance of the relationship and its key role at the heart of the EU.

Whether Pécresse tacks closer to the center at some point is an open question. But for now, she’s making clear she has few qualms about taking aim at Berlin and Brussels.

At the lunch event, she complained France had been short-changed on recent EU initiatives, such as the establishment of a carbon tax at the EU border and the European Commission’s “taxonomy” that set out which energy sources should be considered sustainable for investment purposes.

“The carbon tax was expected to bring in €15 billion and fund the [EU’s] recovery package, and instead we’ll only get €800 million,” Pécresse declared. “Why? Probably because German industries pollute more and lobbied to bring it down.” 

France has been lobbying for years for the new levy targeting high-carbon imports but Germany has been more ambivalent. Some German politicians see the measure as protectionist and have warned it could backfire if trading partners introduce countermeasures.

Germany’s new government wants a carbon border tax at the EU’s border but also wants to create a “climate club” to bind other countries into similar schemes.

Among those most critical of the carbon border tax is Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany’s main opposition Christian Democrats. Merz declared last year that the measure would spell the end of free trade and trigger a global trade war.

Merz met Pécresse in Paris on Wednesday and was full of smiles and warm wishes for the French candidate, according to his social media feed. However, Pécresse’s comments on Germany and the carbon border tax had not been reported at that time.

On the taxonomy, Pécresse claimed Berlin had got a better deal than Paris.

“It is not normal that the Germans manage to cast a better light on their gas-fired power plants than we do for nuclear, an industry that is decarbonized,” Pécresse also said. Both energy sources feature on the EU’s proposed list, albeit with strings attached.

Asked about Pécresse’s anti-German rhetoric, Les Républicains MP Pierre-Henri Dumont tried to strike a more conciliatory tone. He backed Pécresse’s view that France lost out too often when compromises are struck in Brussels but suggested Paris itself was partly to blame.

“It’s more about our approach to politics. We don’t send our top politicians to Brussels unlike other countries, we send political newbies and our retiring politicians,” he said.

‘Migration Waterloo’

Monday’s event was not the only time in recent days that Pécresse has lashed out at the EU.

On Sunday, she described EU migration policy as “a migration Waterloo” on French television, making an incorrect claim that 40 million migrants illegally entered the bloc in 2021. The actual number of illegal border crossings for last year is closer to 200,000, according to European Commission statistics.

Europe Minister Clément Beaune swiftly accused Pécresse of “talking rubbish” and confusing visa entries with migrant arrivals. An adviser to Pécresse said later her remark had been a slip of the tongue.

On the same TV show, Pécresse said Europe had “the right to choose who it welcomes” and added on a Trumpian note that “to protect its external borders, we must not exclude the construction of walls.”

Such rhetoric from Pécresse is surprising as she left Les Républicains in 2019 in part due to differences over Europe with then-leader Laurent Wauquiez, who favored more a right-wing populist course.

She subsequently rejoined the party but a large part of its base is not enamored of the EU. Pécresse won the party’s presidential nomination in December in a primary over MP Eric Ciotti, an outsider who won some 40 percent of the vote on a platform of national sovereignty and tough measures on immigration and crime.

A member of Macron’s government suggested Pécresse was being influenced by Ciotti, who is a member of her campaign team.

“If she kicks Ciotti out of her office, she’ll go back to being a Europhile,” said the government member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lashing out at Germany is traditionally the preserve of the far right in France, which accuses mainstream parties of selling out to the economic powerhouse across the Rhine.

On Tuesday, Le Pen told radio station Europe 1: “I’m sure Germany is very happy with Emmanuel Macron because he obeys Germany.”

But Dumont, the Les Républicains MP, denied his party was taking a page from the far-right playbook.

“We are not running a campaign in relation to others,” he said. “Macron has killed the debate on Europe. As soon as you criticize it, say it doesn’t work, you are denigrated as a Europhobe.” 

“Being a Europhile doesn’t mean you are completely euro-idealist,” he added. “You can be critical of it and it doesn’t mean you are against it.”

Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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