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Former PM Villepin to vie for presidency in 2012

Former French premier Dominique de Villepin announced on Sunday that he will challenge his political arch-rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in next May's presidential election. Villepin said he was running to "defend a certain idea of France".


AFP - Former French prime minister and conservative politician Dominique de Villepin announced Sunday he would take on his right-wing rival President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential vote.

"I have decided to be a candidate in the 2012 presidential election," he told TF1 television.

"I intend to defend a certain idea of France... I have a conviction: the 2012 meeting will be a meeting of truth, courage and will."

Villepin, a suave diplomat best remembered for leading the charge against the Iraq war at the United Nations in 2003, is a protege of former president Jacques Chirac.

It was under Chirac that he served as foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 and as prime minister from 2005 to 2007.

He and Sarkozy are bitter rivals and in September a French appeals court confirmed his acquittal over a political scandal in which he was accused of having smeared the future president.

Villepin said he was "worried" to see "France humiliated by the law of the markets which imposes more and austerity".

"I have confidence in the ability of the French people to discern what is in the public interest and to what point, more than ever, national unity is required of us all," said Villepin.

"Ten years is too long" for the country to be ruled by Sarkozy, he said, accusing the president of abandoning French interests.

"Today we are losing a large part of our sovereignty. We are aligning ourselves with interests that are not those of France. I believe one needs more courage than that," Villepin said.

Villepin, a 58-year-old political insider who has never run for public office, is likely to draw some right-wing votes away from Sarkozy. But opinion polls suggest his support among voters is currently very low.

A poll by firm LH2 released on Sunday showed Villepin with only one percent of intended votes, behind Socialist candidate Francois Hollande with 31.5 percent, Sarkozy with 26 percent and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen with 13.5 percent.

Sarkozy's supporters were nevertheless quick to urge him to drop out of the race.

"Dominique de Villepin is a man on his own, without financial means, without a political movement... It is in the public interests of France (for the right) to form a bloc around the president," said Nadine Morano, a junior minister with Sarkozy's UMP party.

"The public interest should come before personal ambition," she said.

Villepin was acquitted in May in the smear case, which centred on a fake list of names that falsely implicated Sarkozy in kickbacks on arms deals with Taiwan.

Sarkozy accused Villepin of causing his name to be on the list. The trial focussed on a web of murky claims and counter-claims about who in European defence company EADS, owner of Airbus, was responsible for the fake list, and whether Villepin could have prevented it.

In September a lawyer widely reported to be close to Sarkozy also implicated Villepin in a scandal involving huge sums of cash allegedly handed over by African leaders to politicians.

Robert Bourgi said he had personally handed $20 million in cash from several presidents of France's former African colonies to Chirac and Villepin -- a claim that both furiously denied.

France will vote in the first round of a presidential election in April and potentially a second round in May, followed by parliamentary elections in June.

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