PARIS (Reuters) - French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin staged his first rally on Sunday with an appeal to working class voters in what political opponents saw as the start of the race to succeed President Emmanuel Macron.
The constitution bars Macron from running for a third term and potential candidates in the centre-right camp - including Darmanin, but also former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire - are already positioning themselves for the 2027 ballot.
Darmanin, a tough-talking former conservative who has been charged with maintaining order in a country regularly beset by protests, is making it increasingly clear he is eyeing the next presidential election.
On Sunday, he gathered about 100 lawmakers and a dozen cabinet colleagues in his constituency of Tourcoing, a working class town in France's northern rust belt.
Darmanin, the son of a former cleaner of Algerian descent, wants to appeal to working class voters, who he says feel despised and could bring far-right leader Marine Le Pen to power in 2027 if the government fails to hear their concerns.
"Rightly or wrongly, working classes in our country don't feel well-considered and represented. They feel like they don't mean much and are the target of irony or sometimes even scorn," Darmanin said in Tourcoing, while also praising Macron's record.
"The solution is not only a technical answer. A politician must be keen to listen," Darmanin added.
Darmanin acknowledged there had been speculation about him running to succeed Macron, but stopped short of officially announcing a bid.
But the 40-year-old's initiative has irritated some members of Macron's entourage.
Macron's former top political adviser, Stephane Sejourne, now a European lawmaker, said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper last week that "ideas must come before egos" when asked about Darmanin, and said it was too early to pick candidates for Macron's succession.
However, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said on X, formerly known as Twitter: "In Tourcoing, the post-Macron era has started."
The head of the conservative Les Républicains party Eric Ciotti called for some "dignity" saying: "Before thinking of succession, you should think of governing."
Macron himself has yet to anoint a favourite successor.
Philippe, now the mayor of the port of Le Havre, remains one of France's most popular politicians and has not denied harbouring presidential ambitions.
On Wednesday, Macron has invited the heads of French political parties for talks about the next legislative agenda, as he seeks allies to pass bills, having been shorn of his majority in parliament last year.
He has tasked Darmanin in particular with finding the necessary votes in the lower house to pass a long-delayed bill to cut illegal immigration.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Alison Williams)