Former French PM Villepin to run for president

December 12, 2011 - 7:56 AM

PARIS (AP) — Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who gained international renown as France's spokesman against the war in Iraq, has shaken up the presidential campaign by announcing he'll run as an independent.

The announcement Sunday night on French television is likely to complicate life for both the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, and President Nicolas Sarkozy, who runs the UMP party that Villepin served under.

By positioning himself as a centrist, Villepin could siphon votes from both the other candidates. But the move was primarily seen in France as a finger in the eye of Sarkozy since the two men — despite inhabiting the same conservative side of the political spectrum — are bitter rivals.

Villepin was acquitted in September of charges he took part in a smear campaign against Sarkozy. On Sunday, he criticized Sarkozy for not protecting France's interests at a recent EU summit and imposing several rounds of budget cuts.

With growth slowing and difficult budget cuts likely ahead, both Hollande and Sarkozy have tried to paint themselves as beyond partisanship — possibly because they fear both established parties will be blamed for country's high debt levels and poor economy.

Sarkozy has not even officially declared his candidacy yet, saying that in this time of crisis, he needs to focus on being a leader, not a candidate.

Villepin, too, said his candidacy will eschew party politics and distanced himself Sunday from the UMP.

"I am not for the republic of parties. I don't believe that truth lies on the right, on the left or in the center," he hold TF1 television.

He said that France had been humiliated by "the law of the markets that keep imposing on us more austerity."

He also dismissed a deal forged last week to bind the countries that use the euro closer together, including giving officials in Brussels more oversight over national budgets. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were the primary authors of the accord.

"We're falling in line behind interests that are not those of France. I think we need more courage than that," he said.

Members of the UMP denounced Villepin's decision, saying he risked splitting the party. While Villepin has little chance of winning — it's still unclear whether he would get all of the mayoral signatures he needs to officially enter the race — he could play spoiler.

In the 2002 presidential elections, a plethora of Socialist candidates cleared the way for far-right National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen to make it into a runoff with then-President Jacques Chirac, a result that stunned and scared many around Europe.

"Only the largest union of the forces, ideas and convictions of the right and center will allow us to be in a position to carry the 2012 campaign," UMP member Valerie Rosso-Debord said. "The risk of the opposite on April 21 is real and we call on all of our political family to gather and mobilize in face of the left and the National Front."

The election will take place over two rounds in April and May.

A National Front candidate, Le Pen's daughter Marine, is also running this year. She held her first campaign meeting on Sunday, calling for a negotiated exit from the euro and criticizing her rivals for being too pro-Europe and anti-France.

Best known internationally for his impassioned 2003 United Nations speech against the United States' invasion of Iraq, Villepin served as foreign and interior minister under Chirac before being named premier. He left the office when Sarkozy became president.