Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin launched a new centre-right party on Saturday aimed at unseating his bitter rival, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an election in 2012.
A Villepin candidacy in the presidential election could split the conservative vote and highlight divisions in Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Villepin, an aristocratic former diplomat, is one of Sarkozy’s fiercest critics within the conservative camp. The creation of Republique Solidaire, announced in March, coincides with Sarkozy suffering dismal poll ratings.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters which organisers put at 6,000 people, Villepin criticised “an ever-growing gap between words and acts, between what French people go through and what their leaders experience.”
Villepin is crafting an image of a more socially responsible conservative, calling for higher income and corporate taxes.
Saying he had met “unsettled, tired, exasperated” people during a tour of the French regions, Villepin said: “If we don’t watch out, impatience will become anger and anger will become violence.”
Villepin’s entrance is another sign that Sarkozy, whose re-election had been regarded as a near-certainty, may face a tougher than expected contest.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, may also be a potential threat to Sarkozy and is widely viewed as favourite to head the Socialist party slate for the 2012 election.
Strauss-Kahn’s status has grown because of his central role in handling the financial crisis and Greece’s debt problems.
Villepin served as prime minister under former President Jacques Chirac and had a tense relationship with the plain-speaking Sarkozy, who served as his interior minister.
The rivalry between the two turned into open enmity in the so-called Clearstream affair, in which Villepin was accused of trying to smear Sarkozy and destroy his presidential ambitions.
Villepin was cleared in a trial in January but faces another court battle after the state prosecutor launched an appeal.