Sarkozy less popular than sworn enemy

President's camp dismiss Villepin's higher approval rating as 'passing nuisance'
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President Nicolas Sarkozy will be deeply embarrassed today by an opinion poll which suggests that he is much less popular than his detested rival and former colleague Dominique de Villepin.

The poll, to be published in the magazine Paris Match, comes three weeks after Mr Villepin was cleared by a French court of attempting to smear Mr Sarkozy during his rise to power. An appeal is due to be heard at the end of this year.

Asked which of the two men they preferred, 57 per cent of those polled chose the former prime minister and foreign minister Mr Villepin. Only 38 per cent chose President Sarkozy.

The President's staff minimised the poll's importance yesterday, pointing out that Mr Villepin, 56, had no party or electoral machine and had "never stood for election in his life".

But the findings, published by a magazine usually friendly to the President, suggest that Mr Villepin could play a wrecking role on the centre-right when – or if – Mr Sarkozy, 55, stands for re-election in two years.

The tall, handsome former premier was cleared on 28 January of helping to spread false allegations in 2004 that the future president had undeclared bank accounts in Luxembourg. He says that only President Sarkozy's "personal hatred" can explain the decision of the state prosecution system to appeal against his acquittal.

Mr Villepin has already launched what amounts to a preliminary presidential campaign, making personal appearances to test his own popularity and make disobliging remarks about the President.

On a visit to a pig farm in Finistère in Brittany this week, he was handed a tiny piglet, the runt of the litter. "Does he remind you of anyone? Me too." A voice in the crowd shouted: "Isn't he called Nicolas?" Mr Villepin replied: "No. Look, he is sweet."

A spokesman for the President's centre-right party, the UMP – to which Mr Villepin also belongs – yesterday dismissed the patrician former prime minister as a passing nuisance."There are some people who blabber and others who do things," said Dominique Paillé. "When it comes to casting a ballot, the French people will know the difference."

The renewed civil war on the French centre-right has been matched by a savage new outbreak of internal warfare on the centre-left. The main opposition party, the Socialists, is in the midst of a titanic battle with one of its most popular regional chieftains, who was suspended from the party three years ago after making a series of apparently racist remarks.

Georges Frêche, 71, is the president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. He remains popular in his own region and is running for re-election next month at the head of a loose leftist coalition, including local Socialists.

Mr Frêche once outraged the national party by suggesting there were too many black faces in the France football team. Recently, he said that the former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius – who is of Jewish origin – "does not have a very Catholic face".

Although Mr Frêche denied that this comment was anti-Semitic, it provoked new fury in the Socialist leadership. The party decided to launch its own candidate against Mr Frêche. Although the Socialists are doing well in every other region, an opinion poll yesterday showed Mr Frêche far ahead in Languedoc-Roussillon with the new Socialist list trailing in a humiliating seventh place.