Michel Barnier made security the focus of his French election bid on Monday, promising to “restore order” as he clashed with his right-wing rivals in the campaign’s first TV debate.
Mr Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, renewed his pledge for a three to five-year freeze on immigration to France.
He was one of five candidates making their pitch to voters, who will choose the nominee of the centre-right Republicans at a party congress on December 4.
But they are in danger of being overshadowed by the extreme right as polls show nationalist pundit Eric Zemmour gaining ground in a race he has not even formally entered.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to seek a second term in the April election, was blamed in Monday’s debate for contributing to Mr Zemmour’s rise by failing to get a grip on security.
Mr Macron’s term has been marked by violent incidents including the deadly attack on a teacher, Samuel Paty, in the Paris suburbs last year.
“Security is the principal failure of this presidential term,” said Mr Barnier, referring to Mr Macron’s time in office. “It will be the priority of the new term.”
Mr Barnier said he would use his first day in office to show solidarity with the French armed forces, whom he described as the “heirs to a great history that we are proud of and I will never apologise for”.
“I want to propose a new French ambition,” he said. “Restore order, preserve our way of life and rebuild French influence. I want to respect the French and for France to be respected.”
Xavier Bertrand, another centre-right candidate, urged voters disillusioned with Mr Macron to turn to him rather than a far-right candidate.
“French people want to turn the page on Macron because he’s failed. I’m convinced I’m the one who can beat him,” Mr Bertrand said.
Mr Barnier clashed with Mr Bertrand and another candidate, Valerie Pecresse, over his planned moratorium on immigration to France.
With France obliged to uphold free movement within the EU, he acknowledged that his policy would merely lead to a reduction in visas granted to foreigners.
“My friends are pretending to not understand my moratorium,” he said.
Mr Barnier came into the debate after a flurry of headlines that talked up his chances of winning the Republican nomination.
A former minister, he has been touted as a potential “French Joe Biden” – a seasoned operator who could unite his party against a common enemy.
But a survey of Republican voters released on Monday showed 54 per cent regarding Mr Bertrand as the candidate best placed to win the presidency.
Mr Bertrand boosted his hopes by defeating the far right in regional elections in June. But he frayed his ties with the party by publicly quitting the Republicans in 2017, before seeking a return to the fold this year.
Polls suggest the Republicans could miss out on the final run-off once again after they suffered a humiliating first-round defeat in 2017.
Mr Macron led his Republic On The Move party to victory in that year’s second round, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
The 2022 election could yet see a rematch, but Mr Zemmour’s surge has shaken up the race and weakened Ms Le Pen’s grip on the nationalist vote.
She took aim at Mr Zemmour on Monday by telling French television that he would have no chance of beating Mr Macron.
“The real question is what is the point of his candidacy? And I still don’t know,” she said.
Mr Zemmour, a pundit and author often compared to Donald Trump, has caused outrage with provocative statements on Islam, immigration and French history.
He drew the ire on Sunday of Pierre de Gaulle, the grandson of France’s former president and wartime resistance figure Charles de Gaulle.
Mr Zemmour had claimed that Philippe Petain, the leader of the collaborationist government in Nazi-occupied France, protected French Jews rather than sending them to their deaths.
“Saying that Petain saved Jewish families, that shocks me as a French person,” said Mr de Gaulle. “Petain moved much faster than Hitler would have imagined in adopting anti-Jewish laws.”