PARIS (Reuters) - Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced the creation of a new center-right party on Thursday set to challenge bitter rival President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections in two years' time.
The move by one of Sarkozy's fiercest critics within his own conservative camp comes as the president strains to recover from a crushing defeat in regional elections at the weekend.
"I have decided to create a new political movement that will be free and independent," Villepin told a news conference, adding that the party will be launched in Paris on June 19.
Villepin, an aristocratic former diplomat, said his movement would advocate a more equitable approach. "The motto of our struggle will be a republic of solidarity," he said.
Villepin's announcement is one of a number of signs that preparations for the 2012 presidential elections are already under way and that Sarkozy, previously seen as a near-certainty for re-election, may face a tougher race than expected.
In past years Sarkozy has enjoyed the spectacle of seeing Socialist opponents bicker among themselves, but a Villepin candidacy in the 2012 poll could split the conservative vote and highlight divisions in Sarkozy's UMP party.
The president has focused on soothing discontent among center-right allies since the weekend election rout, dropping a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, reassuring farmers and hammering a tough line on security and immigration.
He also moved to undermine Villepin's nascent movement by recruiting to the government Georges Tron, one of the former prime minister's closest allies, in a reshuffle on Monday.
Villepin said his new party would stand for a more socially responsible conservatism, called for higher income and corporate taxes and said Sarkozy should drop the "fiscal shield" that protects the wealthy from paying more than 50 percent in tax.
Villepin said that while the 10 percent best paid in France now earn up to 230 times more than the 10 percent lowest paid, compared to 20 times in the 1970s and '80s.
"This is intolerable. Are we still a democracy, are we still a republic when the wage differences are so violent?" he said.
Villepin, the author of numerous works on Napoleon, served as prime minister under former President Jacques Chirac and had a tense relationship with the blunt-spoken and ambitious Sarkozy, who served as his interior minister.
The rivalry between the two shifted into open hatred through the so-called Clearstream affair, in which he was accused of trying to smear Sarkozy and destroy his presidential ambitions.
Villepin was cleared in a trial in January but faces another court battle after the state prosecutor launched an appeal.
A powerful orator, whose most famous moment came in a speech in the United Nations denouncing U.S. invasion plans in Iraq, Villepin has never been elected to political office but has worked hard at boosting his profile since the Clearstream trial.
An opinion poll this week in the daily Le Parisien put Villepin ahead of Sarkozy in a list of potential center-right candidates but there is widespread skepticism about him among mainstream center-right politicians.
"I want to see if this is just an exercise in demolition aimed at a person or if it is a constructive enterprise aimed at creating better prospects for France," Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told LCI television.