Paris: Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was set to launch a new political party on Saturday, setting his sights on challenging long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012.
Organisers expected some 3,000 supporters to turn up for the founding congress in Paris of the new centre-right party called "Republique solidaire" (United Republic).
The 56-year-old ex-Prime Minister, who also served as foreign and interior minister under ex-president Jacques Chirac, has emerged as Sarkozy's fiercest critic within his right-wing camp.
In an interview to Le Monde published Friday, Villepin again took aim at Sarkozy, saying his government's "dominant trait was that it was developing policies with pollsters who every day look at the surveys and ask what publicity stunt they can score."
Polls show Villepin would pick up no more than 7 or 8 percent of the vote in 2012, but his approval ratings stand at 49 percent -- higher than those registered by Sarkozy, which have hit rock-bottom over the past months.
The latest polls put Sarkozy's approval rating at around 33 percent.
Villepin is a member of Sarkozy's UMP party and while they both served under Chirac, they fell out spectacularly over who should succeed him.
Chirac openly campaigned for Villepin but Sarkozy turned out to be the more skillful politician by winning the UMP nomination.
A showdown took place last year when Villepin went on trial for allegedly taking part in a smear campaign to ruin Sarkozy's Presidential bid, but the ex-Prime Minister was cleared of all charges.
Prosecutors however have appealed the verdict and he is expected to be back in court again next year, just as the campaign for the Elysee gets into full swing.
A career diplomat who speaks flawless English, Villepin won global fame for leading the charge against the US invasion of Iraq at the United Nations in 2003.
His smooth, patrician some would say arrogant style contrasts sharply with Sarkozy's more brash approach. A published poet, novelist and essayist, he cuts a very different figure to the more populist Sarkozy.
His candidacy however could divide the right at a time when Sarkozy's party is facing a challenge from the far-right.
Marine Le Pen, vice president of the far-right National Front, said she was "very happy" about the prospect of Villepin running in 2012 and suggested it could weaken Sarkozy. "He will be Sarkozy's Chevenement," she said.
Former Interior Minister Jean-Paul Chevenement is seen as having drained away left-wing votes in the 2002 election that allowed far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father, to make it into the run-off against Chirac.
First Published: Saturday, June 19, 2010, 10:50