PARIS: French far-right pundit Eric Zemmour announced on Tuesday (Nov 30) that he will run for president in next year's election, staking his claim in a video peppered with anti-immigrant rhetoric and doom-laden warnings about the future.
Zemmour, a 63-year-old writer and TV commentator, is the most stridently anti-Islam and anti-migrant of the challengers seeking to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in the April 2022 vote.
His formal entry into the race - anticipated for weeks - will see him try to outflank veteran far-right leader Marine Le Pen with a more radical programme that includes banning foreign-sounding first names.
"It is no longer the time to reform France, but to save it," he said. "That's why I have decided to stand in the presidential election."
Referring repeatedly to his view that white French people are being replaced by immigrants, he said he had joined the race "so that our daughters don't have to wear headscarves and our sons don't have to be submissive".
Zemmour soared in opinion polls in September and October while teasing his presidential ambitions, but has since lost momentum.
A photograph of the Paris-born pundit giving a middle finger with the comment "Real deep!" to a protester during a trip to Marseille at the weekend was seen as his latest misstep and he is yet to draw any political heavyweights to his side.
A new poll on Tuesday showed him in third position with 13 per cent in the first round of the election, down three-four points in a week, behind Le Pen and Macron.
'FOREIGNERS IN YOUR COUNTRY'
The author of the hit 2014 book "The French Suicide" announced his candidacy in a nostalgia-filled YouTube video which showed him sitting at a desk reading his speech into an old-style microphone, an image reminiscent of General De Gaulle's famous 1940 call to the French to join the Resistance against Nazi Germany.
Over nine minutes, he warned that the France "of Joan of Arc and Louis XIV" and "of Notre-Dame and village churches" was "disappearing".
"You feel like foreigners in your own country," he said, his voice playing out over recent colour images of violence and rioting which contrasted with a peaceful vision of the past in black-and-white.
"Immigration is not the cause of all our problems but it aggravates them all," he declared.
His opponents immediately mocked his presentation, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin calling it "absolutely dreadful" while Socialist party head Olivier Faure dubbed it "sinister".
Far-left MP Alexis Corbiere said it "seemed more like an announcement for the presidential election in 1965", calling Zemmour the "candidate for nastiness and hatred".
Anti-fascism activists and unions have pledged to organise a protest in Paris on Sunday against Zemmour's first official campaign meeting at a large stadium in the northeast of the capital.
Besides Le Pen, Zemmour will also face competition from the centre-right Republicans party, which will choose this week from five candidates in a party primary that has also been dominated by talk of immigration.
Analysts are unsure how Zemmour, the son of Algerian Jewish migrants, will influence the final outcome of the election, for which Macron remains the overwhelmingly favourite.
Though polls indicate a majority of voters are worried about immigration and think there are too many foreigners in the country, their biggest concern remains the economy and their household income.
Historian and political scientist Marcel Gauchet said Zemmour's candidacy would help make Le Pen seem more moderate -- her goal ever since taking over France's main far-right party from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011.
"It normalises the presence of Marine Le Pen in the political landscape, but it still doesn't make her a plausible candidate for the presidency," Gauchet told AFP.
The latest poll by the Harris interactive group on Tuesday shows Macron beating Le Pen by 54 percent to 46 percent in the second round scheduled for Apr 24.
The exact line-up of the contest will become clearer this Saturday when the Republicans announce their nominee.
On Tuesday evening, the five contenders, who include former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, hard-right MP Eric Ciotti, former minister Xavier Bertrand and Paris region chief Valerie Pecresse, will go head-to-head in the last of four televised debates.
Analysts say the outcome is wide open.