Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced plans to run for president next year, while far-right leader Marine Le Pen set out her vision for the top job as the race to unseat incumbent Emmanuel Macron gathers pace.
Hidalgo is one of a handful of candidates from both right and left bidding to become France’s first female leader.
Macron has yet to confirm whether he will seek a second term, but is widely expected to run again.
Polls show him and Le Pen topping the first round of voting in April and Macron beating Le Pen in the run-off, in a repeat of 2017.
Hidalgo is favoured to win the nomination of her Socialist party later this month, but faces an uphill battle to unite the fractured left behind her candidacy.
The Socialist party has been floundering since the one-term presidency of François Hollande, who ended up so unpopular he did not even seek a second mandate in 2017.
Working-class voters have deserted the party, which some feared could disappear after its historically low score of 6% at the last presidential election in 2017.
Hidalgo, who has the backing of a new generation of younger Socialist mayors seeking to reinvent the party, has centred her campaign firmly on her story of “overcoming class prejudice” to win back voters.
She chose the dockyards of the Socialist-run city of Rouen to make her pitch for a low-carbon economy and more spending on education, housing and health.
“The Republican model is disintegrating before our eyes,” Hidalgo told supporters gathered on the docks.
“I want all children in France to have the same opportunities I had,” she said, crediting the French school system with helping her overcome the “class prejudice” she suffered as the child of Spanish immigrants – her father was an electrician and her mother a seamstress – in a housing estate in Lyon.
“Knowing the seriousness of our times and to give hope to our lives, I have decided to be candidate for the French presidency,” the 62-year-old said when she announced her bid.
Hidalgo described how she had arrived in France from Andalucia at the age of two with her Spanish parents fleeing Franco’s dictatorship.
“I owe my freedom to school,” she said. “Here in the port of Rouen, I think of my dad who worked in the shipyards of Cadiz and my mother, a seamstress.”
She chose to become French aged 14 and said she still kept her nationality decree close by as a sign of her attachment to France.
Hidalgo enters the race as a polarising figure whose campaign to squeeze cars out of Paris and green the city has divided residents.
She has emphasised her record as a capable manager who steered Paris through a series of crises, from a string of terror attacks to the “yellow vest” riots of 2018 and 2019 and the fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame cathedral.
Shortly after her announcement, the anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen set out the main themes of her third campaign for president in a speech in the southern city of Frejus.
In typical barnstorming mode, Le Pen told a crowd of flag-waving supporters she would clean up “parts of France that have been Talibanised” – a reference to the presence of religious extremists in some high-rise housing estates.
She also made overtures to the many thousands who stage weekly protests against the coronavirus (Covid-19) “health pass”, which requires people to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to get served in restaurants, take long-distance trains and a host of other services.
Le Pen, who is campaigning as the defender of French “liberty”, called it “a disproportionate violation of the right to freedom”.
Polls currently show Hidalgo would garner only 7-9% in the first round of voting for president in April if picked to represent the Socialists.
She is hoping to boost that score by tapping into the growing climate activism of France’s younger generation.
Both she and Le Pen have accused Macron of “arrogance” – one of the accusations that underpinned the “yellow vest” revolt.
The two also stressed their commitment to women’s rights.
Le Pen vowed to make the streets safe for girls to walk “at any time of day or night and in any neighbourhood”.
Hidalgo said she would push for gender pay equality.
Le Pen’s combative rhetoric masks disquiet in her National Rally after its poor showings in regional elections in June.
Yesterday she handed the reins of the party to her young deputy Jordan Bardella for the duration of the presidential campaign.
Analysts have warned of potential voter fatigue with Le Pen after two failed campaigns.
Her party has pointed to Francois Mitterrand as an example of a politician who triumphed on his third attempt.
Le Pen could however be hobbled by a rival far-right candidacy from controversial TV pundit and author Eric Zemmour.
Zemmour, who has built up a loyal following with diatribes against migration and the Muslim headscarf, is rumoured to be planning to use a forthcoming book tour to throw his hat in the ring.
Macron: yet to confirm whether he will seek a second term.
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