By Paul Taylor
PARIS (Reuters) - Calling himself the candidate of renewal, former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire joined on Tuesday a crowded field contending for the center-right's presidential nomination in a primary due in November.
Le Maire, 46, a pro-European, German-speaking rightist who came second to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy for the leadership of the conservative Republicans party last year, is seen as an outside contender for the nomination. Opinion polls put him in a distant third or fourth place.
However, political sources say he could emerge as a serious younger challenger to front-runner Alain Juppe, 69, if Sarkozy, 61, who is under judicial investigation in a campaign funding scandal, were not to seek re-election.
Le Maire argues that his rivals have all "had their chance". Juppe was prime minister in 1995-97. Sarkozy was president in 2007-12, and Francois Fillon was Sarkozy's premier.
"Yes, I am running for next president of the French Republic," Le Maire told a campaign launch rally in the eastern town of Vesoul, a car component manufacturing center with high unemployment, apparently chosen to distance himself from the Parisian political elite.
Le Maire would lose the first round of the French presidential elections if they were held on Sunday, a poll published on Tuesday showed. He would score 17 percent, below Francois Hollande at 18 percent and Marine Le Pen at 28 percent.
Juppe, the main challenger of Sarkozy, the French conservative party leader, would win the first round of the French presidential elections, with the highest total, 30 percent, a survey by Ifop-Fudicial for Paris Match showed.
Le Maire, born in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, is the son of an executive at the oil company Total and a headmistress of private Catholic schools. He attended the Ecole Normale Superieure literary college, the Sciences-Po political science school and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which trains top civil servants.
After a brief period as a trainee diplomat, he worked for six years as top aide to the Gaullist Dominique de Villepin at the Elysee presidential palace, the foreign ministry and the prime minister's office, where he was chief of staff in 2006-7.
Unlike many French politicians, who remain life-long civil servants on extended leave, with a return ticket if they lose office, Le Maire resigned from the civil service as a matter of principle when he was elected to parliament in 2007.
In recent months, he has shifted to the right, taking a tough stance on law and order and national identity issues. He called last year for the immediate expulsion of foreigners regarded as suspect by the security services and the deportation of foreign nationals who complete jail terms.
He has set out a free-market economic agenda, calling for the privatization of France's labor offices, the end of subsidized jobs and capping of welfare benefits.
He has toured France on his own over three years taking the pulse of public opinion and says it is time to "settle at last the issues the right has swept under the carpet for years".
A prolific writer, his eighth book - "Ne vous resignez pas!" (Don't give up) - goes on sale on Wednesday, denouncing France's economic decline due to "our collective cowardice".
On foreign policy, Le Maire is a traditional Gaullist, favoring French national independence. Sarkozy and Juppe are more Atlanticist, closer to the United States, said political scientist Thomas Guenole.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet, Ingrid Melander and Maya Nikolaeva; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Larry King)