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Updated: March 25, 2010 20:55 IST

Villepin forms new party; may take on Sarkozy

AP
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Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin delivers a speech to journalists in Paris, on Thursday. Photo: AP.
Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin delivers a speech to journalists in Paris, on Thursday. Photo: AP.

Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, an eloquent, silver—haired diplomat, launched a new political party on Thursday that prepares the way for him to challenge long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential elections.

Mr. Villepin, who caught the world’s eye with a forceful 2003 U.N. speech urging the United States not to invade Iraq, assailed Mr. Sarkozy’s presidency and said he was worried the “French model” is disintegrating.

“We need a change in politics,” Mr. Villepin told a news conference in Paris. He said he wanted “a France that lives up to its difference and originality.”

Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity is sinking and his conservative party, the UMP, was trounced by leftists in regional elections last weekend.

Mr. Villepin, himself a former member of the UMP, did not say where the new party would fit on France’s political spectrum. He seems to want to exploit growing fractures in Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative camp.

The former prime minister said the new party, which as yet has no name, would be formally inaugurated on June 19. Mr. Villepin has never been elected to office.

He said on Thursday that he was “ill at ease” with government efforts to ban Islamic veils and cut public service jobs. France should not be afraid of raising taxes, especially on the rich, to get through the financial crisis and reduce the huge deficit, he said.

The country needs to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and keep social protections while remaining competitive, he said, without laying out how he would do that.

Mr. Villepin was prime minister under President Jacques Chirac from 2005 to 2007. But he has been on the sidelines since Mr. Sarkozy took office.

Mr. Villepin’s popularity plunged in 2006 amid nationwide student protests over a proposal to decrease youth unemployment by allowing employers to fire employees aged under 26 without cause. The proposal was ultimately withdrawn.

He has also been mired for years in a legal battle with Mr. Sarkozy involving a high—profile slander trial. Mr. Villepin was acquitted in January on charges he took part in a smear campaign against Mr. Sarkozy, but the prosecutor has appealed. The so—called Clearstream case dated to 2004, when both Mr. Villepin and Mr. Sarkozy were considered contenders to replace Chirac.

Today, Mr. Sarkozy is facing challenges from many corners.

The Socialist Party is resurgent after Sunday’s elections. Socialist candidates for 2012 could include party chief Martine Aubry, author of France’s 35—hour workweek; Mr. Sarkozy’s 2007 challenger, Segolene Royal; and Dominique Strauss—Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund.

And an apparent effort by Mr. Sarkozy to rally hard—core conservative support by staging debates on France’s national identity seemed to backfire. Instead, the debates appeared to boost the extreme right National Front party in Sunday’s regional elections, allowing it to reverse its electoral decline.

On Thursday, several leading centrist politicians appealed to France’s disparate centrist movements to come together under one banner for the 2012 election.

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