Xavier Bertrand, the rising star of the French conservative party, on Monday called for Right-wingers to unite behind his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election.
Mr Bertrand, who has warned against ‘punishing’ Britain for Brexit, issued the rallying cry after fighting off the far-Right in regional elections this weekend.
The 56-year-old is seeking to oust Marine Le Pen as the alternative to President Emmanuel Macron in any second round run-off in the crucial vote this spring.
“Let’s form a great team, because when there is a great and beautiful team from France, I am convinced that it wins,” he told BFMTV on Monday.
Mr Bertrand, who announced his bid for the Elysée back in March, has ruled over France’s northern region of Hauts-de-France since 2015, handling the post-Brexit transition of the port of Calais.
He has called for the ‘reindustrialisation’ of France and quotas on immigration.
On Sunday, conservative politicians won the largest share of the vote, with 38 per cent of ballots, and retained seven regions.
Both Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) and Macron’s LREM party fared worse than expected, and neither won a single region, throwing off predictions their leaders would be involved in two-horse race for the presidency.
Mr Macron congratulated his potential future rival on Monday during a joint visit to the northern town of Douai to announce the launch of a factory for electric car batteries.
“It is important that we managed to make the FN retreat as much,” replied Xavier Bertrand, using the former name of the National Rally from when it was ruled by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, and seen as much more extreme.
While Mr Macron took a tough line on the Brexit negotiations and officially refused to hold bilateral talks with the UK, Mr Bertrand has demonstrated a much softer stance.
He suggested last year that “nothing stops other countries discreetly holding discussions with the UK.”
The former minister in Nicholas Sarkozy’s administration has called for Calais to be a free trade zone and for close links with UK businesses whatever the outcome of the talks. “We don’t want a war,” he said at the time.
While, like most French politicians, he was not in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, he has advocated for a pragmatic, tailor-made relationship with the UK based on the Norwegian, or Canadian, models.
“The British remain a European nation, a great economic power… There will still be only about thirty kilometers between Dover and Calais. So let’s be smart and seek to build a new tailor-made relationship. It is in their interest, but above all it is in our interest,” he told French radio France Inter just weeks after Brexit came into force.
As a leader of the northern region, he however called for France to be ready for an “arm wrestle” with Britain over fishing rights, preventing the processing of fish caught by British fishing boats in the European Union if the French cannot access British waters.
Mr Bertrand, however, remains far from the Elysee. While he is projected to win more votes than any other conservatives in 2022, polls still only credit him with 18 per cent support, behind Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron, both around 25 per cent.
As things stand, he would not make it to the second round.
The success of the mainstream Right against far-Right candidates has also provided a boost to several other high-profile conservative leaders who are expected to run for the presidency.
Valerie Pecresse, who was reelected in the Paris region, has already pushed back on the idea of Mr Bertrand being the conservatives’ natural choice.
“We had a very good French team emerge, especially in the regions, for the right and the centre,” Ms Pecresse told BFMTV on Monday morning. “But not a providential man.”
“For me, everything starts today.”
She is due to announce whether she will run in the summer.