PARIS (Reuters) - Former economy minister Emmanuel Macron launched his bid for the French presidency on Wednesday, a move likely to take votes from mainstream candidates in a tight race that promises a strong turnout for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
The 38-year-old quit the cabinet of Socialist President Francois Hollande in August to prepare a campaign and will stand as an independent in next year's election.
Opinion polls show Hollande himself and the left in general face a rout because of a perceived poor record on unemployment, national security and immigration - issues that lifted Le Pen.
Macron, an ex-investment banker who introduced labor reforms for Hollande, has yet to set out his policies in any detail. Although one of France's most popular politicians he has never held elected office and has no party apparatus behind him. Some say his campaign may struggle.
However, Macron is widely seen as likely to take votes from conservative Alain Juppe, the favorite to win the presidency. Juppe is fighting a tightening race for the center-right nomination in a presidential primary election of Les Republicains party and its center-right allies, which starts on Sunday.
At his election bid announcement, Macron said he wanted to move France away from "clan-based politics", adding: "I've witnessed the shallowness of our political system from the inside."
He batted aside criticism from the Left and Right that he was betraying his former boss and now potential rival Hollande and the Socialists.
"I want to unite the French, I'm not reaching out to the Left or the Right, I'm reaching out to the French," Macron said in a prime-time evening news interview.
The best way for France to deal with globalization was closer ties with the rest of Europe, in contrast to the inward-looking policies of some other contenders, Macron said.
Juppe is fighting on a similarly pro-European and centrist platform, positioning himself to the left of his main rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, an ex-president, competes with the far-right National Front's appeal to populist voters with sharp criticism of EU policy and a hard line on security and immigration.
Macron is not the only new cloud to arrive on Juppe's horizon this week.
Polls had for months consistently been showing 71-year-old former prime minister Juppe winning the primaries.
However, fresh poll readings in recent days ahead of a last television debate on Thursday point to a "third man", ex-premier Francois Fillon, potentially complicating the Sarkozy-Juppe contest.
In the background too is a feeling that more surprises might be on their way after the populist votes that swept Donald Trump to power in the United States last week and will likely take Britain out of the EU.
These events have raised the prospect that surveys might be wrong, even though French pollsters say they account for "hidden" far-right votes. France's two-round, majority vote system makes Le Pen's task hard because a winner has to secure the support of more than 50 percent of those who vote.
Le Pen was in a confident mood on Wednesday. "Macron is the banks' candidate," she said at the launch of her campaign headquarters, accusing him of being out of touch with voters.
Juppe went on the attack too, saying Macron had stabbed Hollande in the back by quitting, but his more immediate problem is Fillon, Sarkozy's prime minister between 2007 and 2012.
An Opinionway poll out on Tuesday shows Fillon neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in the first round of the primaries and then potentially beating Juppe in the second round to take the nomination.
An Elabe poll published on Wednesday saw Juppe's lead over Sarkozy and Fillon also narrowing in the first round but suggested he would still easily beat the former president in the runoff round.
Fillon has espoused Thatcherite free-market policies in determinedly dirigiste France, and wants to cut up to 600,000 public sector jobs - even more than Sarkozy, but is also seen as a "lightweight" version of his former boss on security and immigration although he is more conservative on gay marriage and other social issues.
The primary is open to any voter who wants to pay two euros and sign a paper of allegiance. Left-wing voters are expected to take part to try to influence the outcome, a potential boost for Juppe, but also making the result even harder to call.
Macron quit the French government at the end of August to set up his own political movement called "En Marche", which translates as "Forward" or "Onwards" and his bid had been widely anticipated.
Campaign organizers for Macron said they had amassed 2.7 million euros ($2.89 million) of funding from 6,400 donors to date. The official spending cap in the 2012 campaign was about 21 million euros.
An October poll by Odoxa made Macron the most popular of potential presidents from the left, with 49 percent considering him a good head of state. Prime Minister Manuel Valls came second on 42 percent. Hollande trailed behind others on 13.
So Macron's presence in the contest is also likely to further fragment the divided left-wing vote, as speculation grows that Valls will stand instead of the deeply unpopular Hollande against an array of others.
Hollande's trade minister Matthias Fekl described Macron's candidacy as "a time bomb placed at the heart of a political family."
"The bomb has exploded," he said on RMC radio.
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Ingrid Melander and Leigh Thomas; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Millership