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Verdict launches de Villepin's political future

Will the former prime minister challenge French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012?

“The more they try to eliminate him the more determined he is,” said Brigitte Girardin, 57, a former minister under Chirac who is now president of Club Villepin. The group claims to bring together nearly 8,000 de Villepin supporters through social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, or through a members-only portal where financial contributions to the effort can be made. 

Without naming names, Girardin, who has known de Villepin for about 30 years and has also worked with him, reiterated that though the court case was a political ploy mounted to destabilize the former prime minister, “his political commitment is not negotiable." 

The club’s efforts to mobilize supporters though should not be regarded as campaigning — at least not yet — since de Villepin is still in the exploratory stages of a possible run for president in 2012. Over the next months, he plans to criss-cross the nation on a listening tour to “nourish his reflection,” Girardin said. 

“His objective is to bring French people together and to propose alternatives,” said Sidi Sakho, a 25-year-old business student who sits on the club’s environmental advisory committee. The idea is “to think collectively instead of individually," around large themes like social justice, the country's future and the environment. 

And de Villepin seemed ready to do just that, saying in a recent radio interview: “My commitment has always been to serve my country, and that commitment is even stronger today than yesterday.” 

Sarkozy, who once promised to see those responsible for the affair hang from a butcher’s hook, remained virtually silent throughout these last months of deliberations, perhaps having learned his lesson from a gaffe in September when he referred to the defendants as “guilty parties” before the trial had concluded. The gaffe prompted some to wonder aloud about the presumption of innocence in a judicial system largely overseen by the president.

When you have a president who also exercises authority over the judiciary as a civil plaintiff, there’s a problem, Girardin said. “We no longer know where the separation of powers is,” she said. 

Sarkozy passed up the chance to comment about the trial during his first prime time television appearance this week, saying only that he preferred “that justice do its job and say what she thinks.” 

In spite of the outcome, one of the challenges for de Villepin will be to refashion his aristocratic, bourgeois image to appeal to a broader segment of the voting population. Coupin said the French might be able to overlook the fact that de Villepin has never held elected office because of the charisma he displayed on the world stage as prime minister. Despite his erudite image, he seems capable of defending the country’s interests, said Coupin, evidenced by his speech before the United Nations that kept France out of the war with Iraq in 2003. 

“He makes people want to get behind him,” said Coupin. “The big question mark is whether the people who seem to like him are really going to follow him.”