(Bloomberg) -- When smalltown politician Xavier Bertrand jumped into a tiny vintage car emblazoned with an incongruous legend, “Presidency of France,” an aide tweeted an image of the scene and captioned it “we are on our way.”
The car had been set up for the current incumbent of the Elysee palace, Emmanuel Macron, during a visit to a Renault factory late last month. When he was photographed behind the wheel, some of his advisers worried he’d look uncool. But Bertrand didn’t care.
The 56-year-old former health and labor minister is emerging as a potential dark horse in next year’s presidential election — which many assumed would be a straight contest between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Bertrand reckons he can topple the banker-turned-president by casting himself as the anti-Macron candidate. He plays up his working class roots and links to provincial France, where anger over economic disparities and a feeling the government favors Paris helped stoke the Yellow Vests protests that marked the president’s third year in office.
Yet, like Macron before him, Bertrand has shunned the mainstream primaries to run as an independent, seeking to cement his support before potential rivals can get organized.
“Bertrand’s gamble is to win the support of the right, with a classical, traditional right-wing agenda,” while appearing as an outsider “to expand his reach to less well-off voters, including left-wing voters who dislike the president,” says Remi Lefebvre, a political scientist in Lille.
Bertrand isn’t exactly an outsider, though, and faces tough competition from a crowded field on the right that includes two other popular regional presidents — Valerie Pecresse and Laurent Wauquiez. So, as Lefebvre put it, winning the vote that starts on April 10 wouldn’t be easy for him, but with French elections often full of surprises, it’s entirely possible.
Read more: Why the Yellow Vests Remain a Thorn in Macron’s Side
Bertrand announced his candidacy two months before June’s regional election when he won a second term in northern Hauts-de-France, defeating the far-right by a landslide, and has been gaining momentum in the national polls ever since.
A recent survey gave him 18% of the votes in the first round of the presidential contest, with Le Pen and Macron both around 25%. Macron has been shaping up for a scrap with the nationalist leader. If Bertrand can overtake her to qualify for the runoff, it would transform the race and potentially put the president on the back foot.
People who’ve worked with Bertrand, or watched him in action, note a steely determination. One executive recalls how more than 10 years ago when he was health minister, Bertrand pushed for tighter regulation of medical devices after a French company was found to have sold faulty breast implants, and didn’t care that he was angering powerful business interests.
As president of the downtrodden Hauts-de-France, Bertrand failed to reach most of the goals he set himself, like creating 60,000 jobs in his first year and ensuring all trains arrive on time. But he won praise for cutting red tape and making it easier, well before the pandemic, for patients to consult their doctors online.
Bertrand is often described as being compatible with centrists, yet he holds many conservative views. He opposed same-sex marriage when it was legalized by Francois Hollande in 2013, and defended lowering the age of penal responsibility to 15 as well as minimum penalties for those who attack police, a proposal that could be unconstitutional. Like Le Pen, he’s attacked wind turbines as a source of energy and defends stricter immigration quotas.
One adviser says there may not be too many differences between Macron and Bertrand’s programs. Both want the French to work more, retire later and to put more police on the streets. The adviser highlights contrasting methods, especially in the way Bertrand interacts with people.
Bertrand, for example, says he’s ready to work with the trade unions that Macron cast aside and to hear the people’s demand for greater economic equality. “We need to reduce inequalities, or we’ll fail at reforming the country,” Bertrand said on the sidelines of an economic conference in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, earlier this month.
He likes to remind people that his alma mater is the University of Reims, not one of the elite Parisian institutions that Macron graduated from. And where opponents labeled Macron “the president of the rich” after he scrapped a popular wealth tax, Bertrand’s critics call him “the insurer” because he worked as a Swiss Life salesman. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy once even compared him to “the guy who fixes the copy machine.”
Bertrand’s advisers say he is usually on the defensive and has a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he’s fought so hard to make it in a system that favors people like Macron, but insist he isn’t arrogant. Some of Bertrand’s bedside manners are reminiscent of the president’s, though.
A few days after posing in the Renault car, Bertrand was spotted with a group of students at the Aix conference. After one of them said he wanted to talk about why young people have lost interest in politics, Bertrand slammed him for being incoherent, saying “is that a job that you want? Something else?” And when another asked him about the environmental impact of an urban project in northern France, he accused her of working for a lobby so angrily that she later cried. Bertrand’s team apologized to the young woman and said he wanted to discuss the encounter with her on Zoom. She declined.
The president had a similarly clumsy exchange in 2018, when a young unemployed gardener approached him and explained how difficult it was to find a job. Macron told him to look for work in restaurant.
It would be much harder for Bertrand if the Republicans don’t back him, but his circle says he’ll run no matter what the party decides when it holds its primary, maybe in the autumn.
Bertrand says he just wants to end “the mess” that Macron’s policies have created.
Asked at the conference if he was worried about being pushed out by the two top contenders, Bertrand smiled and replied: “Do I look like the worried type?”
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