France’s De Villepin launches new conservative party

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Thursday announced the creation of a new, as yet unnamed, political party that would help challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election.

De Villepin, who served as prime minister under former conservative President Jacques Chirac, revealed his plans just days after Sarkozy’s center-right party suffered a sound defeat by a coalition of left-wing parties in the final round of regional elections Sunday.

Analysts said the election results showed the administration, led by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, has disenchanted voters as the country copes with a struggling economy and rising unemployment.

“I’m uncomfortable with the politics led by today’s majority [party],” De Villepin told reporters in Paris.

De Villepin, often described as a poetic public speaker who emphasizes the values of traditional Gaullism and its focus on national pride, kept a steady eye on the crowd, without relying on notes during his roughly hourlong speech.

He criticized what he called Sarkozy’s “all over the place” style of leading, echoing criticism that the president has attempted to satisfy public opinion by jumping too quickly from one project to another, with little substance to show for it.

De Villepin questioned Sarkozy’s push to outlaw the public use of the burka, worn by a small minority of Muslim women in France.

“Do we need to quarrel today about a burka debate . . . and point fingers at a specific community?” De Villepin said, latching on to a topic that has been controversial within Sarkozy’s political camp.

In January, judges acquitted De Villepin on charges of conspiring to slander Sarkozy and prevent his victory in 2007, and his recently growing popularity could mark a political comeback for conservative French leadership typical of years past.

Sarkozy won the 2007 election having pledged a break from his conservative predecessors. De Villepin said more effective leadership could come from a sharply different approach to domestic and foreign policies. “We have to go back to the foundations of France,” he said.

His movement, which he runs under his Club Villepin insignia, says it is “open” to voters across the political spectrum, but appears aimed at a center-conservative platform.

He advocated Thursday for left-leaning policies such as holding on to existing civil servant jobs, which Sarkozy has tried to cut.

Yet De Villepin shied from outlining a program, and some observers criticized his remarks as lacking in substance.

Far right National Front party vice president Marine Le Pen said the announcement was merely “a new communications operation, empty of political content,” French news reports said.

Sarkozy on Monday named one of De Villepin’s close supporters, Georges Tron, secretary of state on issues dealing with state- financed jobs in an attempt to weaken De Villepin’s political momentum, and unite conservatives.

Lauter is a special correspondent.