Moderate rightist looks to the Elysee Palace

France has a new conservative contender who vies to topple President Macron

Photo: AP Conservative president of the Northern France region Xavier Bertrand sits inside an electric Renault 4L during a visit of the site of the future factory of battery maker Envision AESC group, 28 June 2021.

After the regional elections in France, there is a new centre-right contender for the Elysee Palace who could pose a serious challenge to President Emmanuel Macron and his re-election ambitions. Xavier Bertrand, 56, a former minister who now leads the Hauts-de-France region in northern France, announced back in March that he would run for president in 2022. In the local votes on Sunday, his centre-right party Les Republicains experienced strong support across the country while Marine Le Pen's National Rally and La Republique en Marche, of the incumbent Macron, failed to win in any of the regions.

The results shook up the political landscape, turning the 2022 election from what had been seen by many observers as a two-horse race between Macron and Le Pen into a three way contest.

“The National Front was stopped, and we have strongly pushed it back,” Bertrand said during a victory speech in relation to the far-right party, which was renamed National Rally in 2018. “Now the presidential contest is a three-horse race,” he told the business daily Les Echos as he doubled down on his pitch to lead the conservative's challenge next year.

France's mainstream parties struggled to recover after Macron dynamited the traditional left-right divide in 2017. Sunday's votes showed the old system making a tentative return.

Bertrand has seen his popularity levels increase the past few weeks, which feeds his hopes to topple President Macron.

“Yes, I will be a candidate… I am totally determined. In view of France's current situation I think this is my duty,” he told French weekly Le Point.

But there is a deep rift between him and the conservatives after the moderate rightist Bertrand left Les Republicains in 2017 over disagreements with the party line. He must first establish himself and convince his own circles that he is the man for the centre-right candidacy for 2022.

Bertrand is not particularly liked by Sarkozy's allies, the former president under whom he was labour minister and who still has power over his party members.

The French conservative paints himself as a common-sense man with his feet planted in provincial France, from where so much of the anti-Macron anger over his perceived disconnect with common folk percolates up from. He often uses his provincial roots to show that he does not belong to the elite of French society and will defend the interests of French middle class.

Born on 21 March 1965 in Châlons-sur-Marne, in the Marne department of the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Bertrand began his professional life as an insurance agent. The future centre-right politician studied in Reims, where he obtained a master's degree in public law and then a Diplôme d'Études Supérieures Spécialisées in local administration.

From 2005 to 2007, as Jacques Chirac's minister of health, he had to deal with the bird flu outbreak in Europe, as well as introduce a ban on smoking in public places in the southern European country. His activity was noticed by Sarkozy, whom he joined in 2007 to become a spokesman for his presidential campaign. Bertrand was appointed Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Solidarity in 2007 and later served as Minister of Labour, Employment and Health from 2010 to 2012. He is married with three children.

A poll by Ispsos / Sopra Steria, published on June 27, shows that the new right-wing political star will be able to leave behind his right-wing opponents in the first round of the presidential election, but will not be able to overtake the current head of state. However, it is possible that things will change by then. As for the current French president, it is very clear to him that it would be easier to beat Le Pen than the candidate of the reviving traditional right.

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