France's powerful Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Sunday issued a stark warning over the danger of far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen winning the presidency in the next election, while burnishing his own ambition to succeed Emmanuel Macron in 2027.
A sequence of bold statements by Darmanin have rocked French politics over the summer holiday period and, as the elite return from vacation, turned eyes firmly toward the 2027 presidential poll even though it remains years away.
Darmanin, still only 40, heads what is now a super ministry of the interior, which also has responsibility for France's overseas territories that span the globe. He has carved out a niche as a tough-talking right-wing figure.
In a sign of his ambition, he invited some 700 people including a dozen ministers and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to the northern town of Tourcoing -- where he was once mayor and which served as his springboard into national politics -- for an afternoon rally fuelled by the beer, sausages and chips that are the pride of the region.
"We are here to defend the results of the president of the republic who has done a lot. There are four years left and we still, I think, have a lot to do," he said as the rally opened.
"And then we are also here to say that there is a problem. Obviously, we cannot give Marine Le Pen an inexorable path to power," said Darmanin, who last week told a French newspaper that it was "quite probable" Le Pen could win the presidency.
- 'Much more security' -
Darmanin has in recent weeks warned that Macron's centrist faction needs to take note of the "popular classes" if it is to have a chance of continuing his legacy in 2027.
"People are asking for much more security, they are asking for better control of immigration, for secularism to be reaffirmed," he said.
"We need to explain this better and I am part of this criticism," he added.
Le Pen lost to Macron in the run-offs of the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections, but analysts believe that 2027 will give her and the far right their best ever-chance of winning power in France.
Polls show public concern growing over issues including immigration, security and the cost of living that her National Rally (RN) party have shown increasing confidence in seizing upon.
Darmanin's sudden firing of the gun for the 2027 campaign has not won universal approval even from within Macron's faction, in particular from those on the left in what is still a broad-based movement.
"2027 is quite far away," Borne noted last week.
French media have repeatedly noted the icy relations between Darmanin and Borne, who kept her job in a recent reshuffle -- a post her interior minister is widely reported to have coveted.
Borne, whose attendance at the event was only confirmed at the very last minute, told those present that the "unity" of the ruling faction must be "protected at any cost".
"This is the condition for continuing to act and not ourselves paving the way for the extremists... This is how we will fight the populists and the extremists," she added.
- 'On the offensive' -
The Le Monde daily said that after the disappointment of missing out on the job of prime monitor this summer, Darmanin had "decided to emancipate himself and go on the offensive".
But he realised he also needed to "enlarge his audience" by addressing those who might not necessarily be fans of his right-wing position, it added.
"In Tourcoing, the post-Macron period has begun," said hard-left figurehead Jean-Luc Melenchon.
"It's the end of Renaissance," added the leader of the Socialist Party Olivier Faure, warning that Darmanin "would bring together the right and the far-right".
For critics and supporters alike, Darmanin's political style is reminiscent of his mentor, the former president Nicolas Sarkozy who also launched his bid for the presidency with a hyperactive stint as a hardline interior minister.
Darmanin has already won Sarkozy's endorsement for his 2027 bid, with the ex-leader writing in his latest book published this month that "I would want him to (win) as he has evident qualities."