In her first address as a presidential candidate for France’s main conservative party, Valérie Pécresse vowed Saturday to break with President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist policies and to defeat the extremism of the far-right candidates in the race.
France is holding its presidential race on April 10, with a run-off if needed on April 24.
Ms Pécresse, head of the Paris region and a former conservative minister, is first woman chosen to run as The Republicans’ presidential candidate.
Since the announcement last week, Ms Pécresse has been gaining in popularity and some polls even have her in a run-off with Mr Macron in the second round of voting.
The French president is expected to seek a second term although he has not yet officially declared his candidacy.
Speaking at a conference hall in a Paris hotel, Ms Pécresse assured party members that she will first beat her rivals on the far-right in order to end The Republicans’ streak of presidential defeats.
“We are back on the battlefield to win and the voters know it,” she said.
“It will be Emmanuel Macron or us!”
Two far-right contenders — Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Rally party who lost to Mr Macron in the 2017 run-off, and former TV pundit Eric Zemmour — are campaigning on anti-Islam, anti-migrant themes.
On the left, Paris Mayor Anne Hidago is the presidential candidate for the Socialist party and the Greens chose European lawmaker Yannick Jadot, a former Greenpeace activist.
The far-left leader of the Rebel France party, Jean Lue Melenchon, is seeking the presidency for the third time.
An experienced politician, Ms Pécresse, 54, has been the minister for higher education, for the budget and was a government spokesperson under former President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.
Ms Pécresse left The Republicans in 2019 amid leadership divisions after the party had a poor showing in EU elections. She rejoined the party this year.
Known as a pro-European, Ms Pécresse in recent months has hardened her positions on immigration and security.
She vowed to crack down on illegal immigration but also to step up the integration of immigrants and break down the barriers faced by the immigrant “ghettos” around France’s urban centres.
She also warned against the rise of what she called “Islamism” in France.
“I am determined to stop the rise of Islamism,” she said.
“In France, women are free and the laws of the Republic are respected.”
If elected president, Ms Pécresse said she would end France’s 35-hour workweek so employees work and earn more.
And internationally, she told the audience of about 1,000 party members and supporters, “I want a strong France.”
“I want us to play a leading role in the world, not as vassals of the United States … and not as subordinates of China and not playing second fiddle in Europe,” she said.