Villepin's presidential run raises worries for Sarkozy

 

Paris

After 17 years in politics, including two years as Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin has finally decided to run for election. And not just any election. Once a contemptuous centre-right rival of President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Villepin has infuriated his old enemy by entering next spring's presidential race.

Mr Villepin, once former President Jacques Chirac's anointed heir, has few backers, no money and a dysfunctional party from which he has resigned. He is predicted to score no more than 1 to 2 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections next April. All the same, the 59-year-old's unexpected announcement has angered and worried many of his former colleagues on the centre-right of French politics. Even a low score for Mr Villepin would divert crucial votes from an already struggling Mr Sarkozy. There are already two or three other minor candidates running on the right and centre-right.

The perennial centrist candidate, François Bayrou, has jumped to an unexpectedly high 13 per cent in the latest polls. A further scattering of the centre-right vote could help the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, to build a big first-round lead and unstoppable momentum in April. It might even allow the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to sneak into the two-candidate second round at the President's expense. One of the senior officials in Mr Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), warned yesterday that a Villepin candidacy threatened to create a "21 April in reverse" – a reference to the far-right triumph in the first round of the presidential election on 21 April 2002 which pushed the left-wing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the second round.

Hatred between the two rivals exploded in 2004-06 into allegations that Mr Villepin tried to smear Mr Sarkozy as financially corrupt. Mr Villepin has twice been tried for his part in the Clearstream fake bribery scandal and has twice been cleared.

Mr Villepin became Mr Chirac's chief of staff in 1995, then Foreign Minister, Interior Minister and Prime Minister. He has never previously run for election at any level. He promises to be an independent candidate in the "Gaullist" tradition, who will end the "humiliation" of France by the "dictatorship" of the markets.

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