De Villepin takes to the airwaves to present himself as man of the people

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M. de Villepin, 48, warned that everyone must get used to expensive petrol-pump prices but went on to promise a tax break for car commuters and special measures for farmers and fishermen.

Answering questions on the Radio Monte Carlo drive-time and breakfast show yesterday, the Prime Minister also promised the French full employment "within 10 years" with "a little luck and a little growth".

The appearance was part of a, so far, successful campaign by the Prime Minister to shed his image as a verbose technocrat and prove he can talk directly to ordinary people.

Although he once again denied any interest in the presidency, M. de Villepin has emerged as the most likely challenger to the hopes of the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, of taking the centre-right "nomination" in the 2007 campaign.

President Jacques Chirac's illness has allowed M. de Villepin to wrap himself in the mantle of a head of state. He will represent France at the UN summit starting today in New York.

The most frequently asked question yesterday was what M. de Villepin intended to do about the boom in petrol and diesel prices. He warned French people that the era of high pump prices was here to stay. Measures would be taken, however, to help farmers and fishermen, he said.

Asked if he could envisage life without a car himself and how he had travelled to the RMC studios, M. de Villepin responded: "Only my crowded schedule makes me use a car. I adore public transport and adore walking."

The answer may be a hostage to fortune. As a senior civil servant and minister in the past 10 years, there are few recorded instances of M. de Villepin walking to work.

M. de Villepin tried once again to distinguish himself from the bruising approach of M. Sarkozy, who has called for a "rupture" with the "big state" approach to French politics. Thousands of civil service jobs could be scrapped, M. Sarkozy has predicted. M. de Villepin said this was the "old sea serpent" of French politics. He said he would look at the issue but proceed with caution (ie, do nothing to irritate civil service unions).