French right-winger Valerie Pecresse was a rank outsider in the race for the presidency just a month ago, but with under 100 days to the election she is seen as the best-placed challenger to Emmanuel Macron.

Backed by her Republicans party which has deep roots nation-wide, the 54-year-old is bidding to be France's first woman president with a slogan that promises "restored French pride".

During a trip to the south on Thursday, the head of the greater Paris region made clear she planned to campaign on an unabashed right-wing platform of law and order.

With under 100 days to election day, Valerie Pecresse is seen as the best-placed challenger to President Emmanuel Macron With under 100 days to election day, Valerie Pecresse is seen as the best-placed challenger to President Emmanuel Macron Photo: AFP / BERTRAND GUAY

While promising to take a "Karcher" power-hose to crime-ridden urban ghettos in France, she accused President Macron of being soft on drug dealers and "complicit" in a rise in violence.

"I don't want any more areas without the rule of law, without France," she told an elderly crowd of a few hundred people in the town of Cavaillon where drug-related gun crime is a source of concern.

Saying she didn't care about "political correctness", Pecresse declared: "Yes, I can say it: There is a link between delinquency and immigration."

Valerie Pecresse vowed 'no more areas without rule of law' during a trip to the southern town of Cavaillon on Thursday Valerie Pecresse vowed 'no more areas without rule of law' during a trip to the southern town of Cavaillon on Thursday Photo: AFP / Pascal GUYOT

By focusing on identity, crime and immigration, she is targeting areas where she views Macron as vulnerable -- and borrowing from the playbook of far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and her rival Eric Zemmour.

"There's not an increase in the fear of crime, there's an increase in crime," Pecresse said, describing drug-dealers taking over tower blocks and teachers trembling in front of their classes.

Surveys of voters show that immigration and crime are indeed among their top concerns, but below the rising cost of living and jobs.

Right-wing candidate Valerie Pecresse is bidding to be France's first woman president Right-wing candidate Valerie Pecresse is bidding to be France's first woman president Photo: AFP / Ludovic MARIN

Pro-business Macron is banking on voters crediting him with falling unemployment and rising wages, as well as his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Only days after causing an uproar by saying he wanted to "piss off" the unvaccinated, the 44-year-old is to head south next Monday to Nice for his own trip focused on security.

One poll in December -- still an outlier -- suggested Macron could lose to Pecresse One poll in December -- still an outlier -- suggested Macron could lose to Pecresse Photo: AFP / Ludovic MARIN

France goes to the polls on April 10 and 24 under an electoral system that sees the top two candidates in the first round advance to a second-round run-off where the winner must garner more than 50 percent.

The country is widely seen as deeply divided, worried about its future and place in the world, and engaged in a culture war over identity and the colonial past.

Pecresse has described herself as 'one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel' Pecresse has described herself as 'one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel' Photo: AFP / Pascal GUYOT

For all of Macron's term, polls have consistently suggested this year's election would likely be a re-run of the 2017 vote that saw Macron beat Le Pen in the second round.

But the emergence of Zemmour, an anti-Islam television pundit, as well as Pecresse's clinching of the Republicans party nomination in early December, have cast sudden doubt on Le Pen's future.

"We realise now that Le Pen was far more fragile than we thought only a few months ago," Bruno Jeanbart, vice-president of polling group OpinionWay, told AFP.

All polls currently indicate that Macron would win the first round of the election on a score of around 26 percent, with Pecresse and Le Pen battling for the second spot in the run-off on around 16 percent each.

The highly fragmented left trails far behind.

Macron is shown winning the second-round for the moment, but one poll in December suggested he would lose to Pecresse -- an outlier for the moment, but it rang alarm bells in the ruling party.

"Pecresse is definitely the more dangerous one for him (Macron)," commented Dominique Reynie, a political scientist who heads the Fondation pour l'innovation politique, a Paris-based think-tank.

Macron and his team have long-practised arguments against Le Pen, accusing her of playing to the racist and anti-Semitic political fringe, as well as raising concerns about her competence.

Pecresse, who has described herself as "one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel", presents a different target.

She is from the mainstream right, a former higher education minister with experience of running France's biggest urban area since 2015.

"They're having difficulties with her," Jeanbart said. "I think part of the problem is that they weren't expecting it."

Despite her strengths, in a campaign overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, "You can't say that there's a real dynamic," according to Reynie. "I don't sense that she's in the process of lighting up the campaign."

She's not seen as a polished public speaker, nor a natural grassroots campaigner, while the Republicans party struggles to appeal beyond its core demographic of wealthy, elderly conservatives.

"Our polling doesn't enable us to know who's going to make it to the second round," Jeanbart said. "The margins are too small."