Sarkozy rival Villepin launches political party
Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin on Saturday launched a new political party, setting his sights on challenging long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012.
Supporters cried "Villepin, president" as the new centre right Republique Solidaire was launched in Paris in front of 3,000 supporters.
The ex-prime minister, who is one of Sarkozy's fiercest critics, told the crowd "something new was rising again in France, something that would not cease to grow with the passing of the months," adding that France's social and economic system had run out of steam.
Villepin, 56, a member of Sarkozy's UMP party, served alongside him under former president Jacques Chirac, but the pair fell out spectacularly over who should succeed him.
A patrician former career diplomat who speaks flawless English, he won global fame for leading the charge against the US invasion of Iraq at the United Nations in 2003.
Brigitte Girardin, president of de Villepin's 15,000 strong support club, said Villepin stood for "defence of republican values, an institutional equilibrium, social justice and the independence of France in the world."
"We are launching this great association because there is an expectation in our country of an alternative to the current politics which has not given the expected results," she said.
Villepin, who also served as foreign and interior minister under Chirac, on Friday took aim at Sarkozy in an interview published in Le Monde.
Sarkozy's government's dominant trait, he said, "was that it was developing policies with pollsters who every day look at the surveys and ask what publicity stunt they can score."
Polls show Villepin would pick up no more than 7 or 8 percent of the vote in 2012, but his approval ratings stand at 49 percent -- higher than those registered by Sarkozy, which have hit rock-bottom over the past months.
The latest polls put Sarkozy's approval rating at around 33 percent.
Although Chirac openly campaigned for Villepin to succeed him Sarkozy ultimately turned out to be the more skillful politician by winning the UMP nomination.
A showdown took place last year when Villepin went on trial for allegedly taking part in a smear campaign to ruin Sarkozy's presidential bid, but the ex-prime minister was cleared of all charges.
Prosecutors however have appealed the verdict and he is expected to be back in court again next year, just as the campaign for the Elysee gets into full swing.
Villepin won global fame for leading the charge against the US invasion of Iraq at the United Nations in 2003.
His smooth style -- which his critics characterise as arrogant -- contrasts sharply with Sarkozy's more brash approach. A published poet, novelist and essayist, he cuts a very different figure to the more populist Sarkozy.
His candidacy however could divide the right at a time when Sarkozy's party is facing a challenge from the far-right.
Marine Le Pen, vice president of the far-right National Front, said she was "very happy" about the prospect of Villepin running in 2012 and suggested it could weaken Sarkozy.
"He will be Sarkozy's Chevenement," she said.
Former interior minister Jean-Paul Chevenement is seen as having drained away left-wing votes in the 2002 election that allowed far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father, to make it into the run-off against Chirac.
© 2010 AFP