The European Union’s former chief Brexit negotiator said he was setting up a group under the name “Patriot and European” ahead of next year’s vote. The faction was presented as a “working group” within the centre-right Les Republicains party.
Insiders said Mr Barnier told party members: “I am available to work with all those who want it under the banner of ‘Patriot and European’, so as not to leave this theme to others.”
None of France’s mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, who were all swept aside by Mr Macron and his La République En Marche movement in 2017, has chosen a candidate with a year to go before the first round of the 2022 presidential election.
Sources on the right cite Mr Barnier as one potential challenger but ex-ministers Xavier Bertrand and Valerie Pecresse, as well as senator Bruno Retailleau, are also being touted as candidates for Les Republicains.
A possible bid by Mr Barnier, a 70-year old former French foreign minister, is being closely watched by the Macron’s camp as he would be a popular choice with the pro-European, centre-right voters the president is targeting.
When asked about the possible threat of a Barnier challenge, one of Mr Macron’s ministers said: “There’s a Biden moment. Grey hair could become fashionable.”
Mr Barnier has previously said he sees himself serving his home country in some capacity following his work on negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.
A Brussels diplomat said he was “actively evaluating his chances” for the presidential election.
READ MORE Brexit LIVE: EU lashes out at Ireland and warns of ‘payback’
On the left, sources in Mr Macron’s government say Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is also considering a presidential bid.
The Spanish-born 61-year old Socialist is no longer ruling out running for president in interviews.
One official said: “Hidalgo is going to go for it. Her team is ready for battle.”
He continued: “It is a political possibility and it must be opposed.
“I hope that Emmanuel Macron runs and is re-elected.”
Mr Macron has seen his approval ratings plummet in recent months with French voters weary of coronavirus restrictions, France’s disastrously slow vaccine roll-out and dire warnings about the state of the economy in the wake of the pandemic.