The EU's former chief negotiator on Brexit, Michel Barnier, announced Thursday he plans to stand as a right-wing candidate against centrist President Emmanuel Macron in next year's presidential elections, pinpointing limits on immigration as a key policy pledge.
Most analysts expect the polls next spring to come down to a duel between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, but an effective candidacy from a traditional right-wing figure could yet upend these predictions.
"In these grave times, I have taken the decision and have the determination to stand... and be the president of a France that is reconciled, to respect the French people and have France respected," Barnier told the evening news show of TF1 television in a live interview.
Barnier, who is entering an increasingly crowded field on the right, cited his long experience in politics as giving him an edge in the race including the "extraordinary" negotiations to find a deal on Britain's exit from the European Union.
He said during the years-long process he had to work "with heads of state and government to preserve the unity of all the European countries".
Asked why he wanted to challenge Macron -- with whom he had worked closely in the Brexit process -- Barnier replied that he wanted to "change the country".
Seeking to strike a more right-wing tone than the president, he spoke of needing to "restore the authority of the state" as well as "limit and have control over immigration", reaffirming a proposal for a moratorium on arrivals.
He also told the Le Figaro daily in an interview published online Thursday that while France should offer asylum to Afghans who had helped French forces "we cannot welcome everyone".
He said the moratorium was needed to "review all procedures" and come to an agreement with the countries of origin "so that they contribute to controlling migratory flows in return for French development assistance".
- Crowded field -
Before becoming the Brexit chief negotiator in 2016, Barnier had served as EU commissioner for the internal market from 2010-2014.
But the 70-year-old is also a veteran of French politics, having held several top posts including foreign minister in a cabinet career dating back to the 1990s.
Barnier is a member of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) and the most prominent of four candidates from the party to have declared their intention to stand. The party may organise a primary later this year if no obvious frontrunner emerges.
Hugely respected by fellow bureaucrats as an effective backstage operator, Barnier's challenge in a presidential bid will be to show he also has the political charisma to inspire the French.
Macron has yet to officially declare his candidacy for a second term but it would be a sensation were he not to stand, despite occasional enigmatic pronouncements that nothing should be taken for granted.
Right-wing former minister Xavier Bertrand, a heavyweight who now leads the northeastern Hauts-de-France region, has already confirmed he will stand in the presidential election, although not for The Republicans.
A possible candidate on the left is the Socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo who has yet to reveal her intentions but has hinted she is ready for a bid to be France's first female president.
Keeping everyone guessing still is former prime minister Edouard Philippe, jettisoned by Macron last year after reportedly becoming too popular for his own good and who has issued no more than coded musings about his intentions.