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Defections hit rightwing hopeful in French presidential race

PARIS (AFP) – The conservative right-wing challenger to Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential vote in April grappled yesterday with a third high-profile desertion in a week, just days ahead of her inaugural campaign rally.

Valerie Pecresse, who surprised many in her Les Republicains party by clinching its primary contest, has seen her polling numbers stagnate in recent weeks, leaving her behind both Macron and far-right contender Marine Le Pen.

Her team is banking on a major rally in Paris tomorrow to inject fresh momentum into Pecresse’s bid, revealing a more personal side to the former budget minister and now president of the greater Paris region.

But on Wednesday, Eric Woerth, a Republicans heavyweight and her former colleague in the cabinet of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, surprised loyalists by announcing he would throw his weight behind Macron in the coming vote.

“I don’t agree with the party’s message” of a France that is “nostalgic and inward-looking”, he told the Le Parisien daily – reportedly without even warning Pecresse of the defection ahead of time.

The Republicains mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart, also close to Sarkozy, followed suit on Thursday by saying Macron had been “attentive” to her coastal city’s struggle to cope with waves of migrants trying to reach Britain by sea.

And yesterday, another former Sarkozy minister, Nora Berra, told BFM television she would not support Pecresse.

Sarkozy, whose popularity has soared since leaving office in 2012, has been notably silent on Pecresse’s bid, with Le Figaro daily reporting that in private he said “Valerie is off all over the place” and “non-existent”.

Campaign officials said Pecresse is to meet with Sarkozy though he is not expected to attend the rally at the Zenith concert hall tomorrow.

A poll by Opinionway published Thursday put Pecresse at 16 per cent of intentions to vote in the first round of voting on April 10, behind Macron at 23 per cent and Le Pen at 17 per cent.