Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who faces charges of complicity in a smear campaign targeting Nicolas Sarkozy, has re-positioned himself as a potential rival for the presidency, saying he wants to embody a "Republican alternative".
REUTERS - Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is positioning himself as a challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election, using a political trial to re-launch his career.
While awaiting a verdict on the accusation that he tried to smear Sarkozy before the last election, Villepin has seized a shift in the public mood to attack the president and raise the prospect of an internal split in the French right.
“I want to work towards an alternative force,” he told French radio on Wednesday after a battle-cry speech on Tuesday.
If the trial, during which Villepin counter-accused Sarkozy of wanting to hang him “from a butcher’s hook”, is anything to go by, the campaign should see some interesting rhetoric.
Political analyst Stephane Rozes, director of the Cap political consultancy, said Villepin’s strategy was to use the “Clearstream” smear trial as a platform to present himself as an alternative to Sarkozy and get to the policy details later.
“This is the launch of a movement with a view to a candidacy in 2012,” Rozes told Reuters.
But while aristocratic, poetry-writing Villepin could not be more different from hyperactive, elite-bashing Sarkozy in terms of personal style, their policy differences are less marked.
Sarkozy has been forced to slow his ambitious reform drive due to public opposition, discord within his own UMP party and well-publicised gaffes and scandals in his cabinet.
Villepin likes to portray himself as the sole dissenter within the UMP brave enough to take on Sarkozy, with an emphasis on social solidarity, but he has refrained from clear proposals.
In public appearances on Tuesday and Wednesday, Villepin criticised everything from France’s public debt to youth unemployment and the government’s crackdown on immigration.
“This so-called reform policy has opened a lot of building sites without really supervising them from up close,” Villepin said in the radio interview.
In the “Clearstream” trial, prosecutors have accused Villepin of taking part in a failed plot to smear Sarkozy before the 2007 campaign, at a time when the two were rivals to succeed the outgoing Jacques Chirac as president.
A verdict is expected in January. Prosecutors have recommended Villepin should receive a suspended 18-month jail term. He says he is innocent and Sarkozy is pursuing a vendetta against him.
“If the judges declare him not guilty, that will be an accelerator for his campaign. If judges find him guilty, he will have politicised the issue with his new initiative, and it will be seen as a political ruling,” Rozes said.
Even if the presidency is a long shot for Villepin, polls suggest he could usurp enough right-wing votes to make a dent on Sarkozy’s results.
In an online survey of just under 400 people by Journal du Dimanche, 37 percent of participants said Villepin had the “stature and competence” to aim for the presidency. Sixteen percent said “Clearstream” had robbed him of any credibility.
His “Club Villepin” fan club aims to attract 100,000 members by the end of next year, but so far, it only has about 3,000.
Whatever the outcome for Villepin, the move could not come at a worse time for Sarkozy. He has succeeded in calming the waters somewhat after scandals ranging from the culture minister’s experiences as a sex tourist to a plan to secure a prestigious public post for the president’s 23-year-old son.
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