French conservatives have emerged as an unexpected third contender to break the much-anticipated 2022 duel between far-right leader Marine Le Pen and President Macron after both fared worse than expected in regional elections over the weekend.
"Everyone has understood that the presidential election is now a three-way race," boasted mainstream-right leader Xavier Bertrand after he comfortably defeated his far-Right opponent in the northern Hauts-de-France region.
The mainstream right’s success in the last election before the 2022 presidential poll has boosted the hopes of three Conservative candidates – all high-profile figures of the French right, all reelected on Sunday and all with eyes firmly set on the Elysee.
From Monday morning, their battle to disrupt a Macron-Le Pen runoff that had long been seen as a foregone conclusion began in earnest.
Following his win, former minister Mr Bertrand wasted no time confirming his presidential intentions.
In a speech addressed to "all the French", he said: "This result gives me the strength to seek the nation’s vote."
Over 38 per cent of voters cast their ballots for mainstream right candidates across France, while the Ms le Pen’s National Rally struggled to get over 20 per cent and Mr Macron’s LREM party only won 7 per cent of the vote. Neither won a single region.
"United, we can win the presidential election more than ever. The results tonight are very encouraging," said Damien Abad, head of The Republicans, the historical conservative party in France.
Mr Bertrand, 56, is seen as the conservatives’ best option to win votes. He has run the northern region of Hauts-de-France since 2015, when he beat Marine Le Pen by 15 points in a hotly contested second round thanks to the support of his former left-wing rivals.
A harsh critic of President Macron and his failure to contain the Yellow Vests movement, Mr Bertrand promotes a mix of harsh security policies with a fight against economic inequalities.
If he runs for the right, Mr Bertrand would likely win 18 per cent of votes in the first round, placing him ahead of potential challengers, according to an IPSOS poll published Sunday.
However, as things currently stand, such a score would be insufficient for him to make it past either Mr Macron or Ms le Pen to the run-off. Both are expected to win around 25 per cent of ballots in the first round.
The other conservative contenders, Valerie Pecresse, reelected in Paris, and Laurent Wauquiez, reelected in the Lyon region, are expected to get around 13 per cent of votes.
The Republicans will select its candidate in November, but some like Mr Bertrand have said they will not participate in a primary. For now, the party plans to poll a panel of 15,000 supporters, in the hopes that one candidate emerges as a clear winner.
Last night’s victories for three serious Conservative contenders may make the party’s choice trickier ahead of 2022.
"What could be seen as an excellent evening could really be a poisoned gift for the selection of a candidate on the right," said Martial Foucault, the director of the Centre for political research at Sciences Po Paris.
Mr Bertrand has called on his rivals to unite with him to try and establish himself as the best option on the right, but Paris leader Ms Pecresse has already pushed back.
"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."