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Sarkozy rival Villepin launches new French political party

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has officially launched a new center-right political party, aimed at unseating President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

Villepin (r) and Sarkozy (l)

Villepin and Sarkozy were in government together under former president Jacques Chirac

One of Nicolas Sarkozy's fiercest critics has set up a new political party in France, aiming to challenge and unseat the current president.

Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has created a new center-right party called Republique Solidaire. Villepin aims to capitalize on Sarkozy's current poor poll ratings.

Sarkozy's re-election has until now been regarded as a near-certainty, but a Republique Solidaire candidacy in the 2012 ballot could split the conservative vote.

Launching the party

Speaking to a crowd of an estimated 3,000 supporters, Villepin criticized "an ever-growing gap between words and acts, between what French people go through and what their leaders experience."

Villepin surrounded by media

The former prime minister was cleared of slander charges in January

The former diplomat has been one of Sarkozy's strongest critics in the conservative camp. He was prime minister under President Jacques Chirac and was known to have a tense relationship with Sarkozy, who served as his interior minister.

Villepin was a member of Sarkozy's UMP party, but broke away after a bitter row. Last year, Villepin went on trial for allegedly taking part in a smear campaign to ruin Sarkozy's presidential bid, but was cleared of all charges.

Splitting the vote

Polls show Villepin would pick up no more than 7 or 8 percent of the vote in 2012, but his personal approval ratings stand at 49 percent. Sarkozy's rating has dropped in recent months to around 33 percent.

A presidential candidacy from Villepin could split the right - at a time when the far-right in France is also challenging Sarkozy.

Marine Le Pen, vice president of the far right National Front, said she was "very happy" about the prospect of Villepin running in 2012, as it could weaken Sarkozy.

The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is also being touted as a candidate and is widely viewed as a favorite to head the Socialist party ticket for 2012.

Author: Catherine Bolsover (AFP/AP/Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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