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French PM rules himself out of presidential bid

Written by: Staff

PARIS, June 28 (Reuters) Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin today said he had no plans to stand in next year's presidential election, preferring instead to concentrate on running the government.

Villepin was seen as a potential presidential front-runner when he was nominated prime minister in 2005, but his government has stumbled from one crisis to another in recent months and his popularity rating has slumped to near record lows.

''I have said from day one ... I don't have any presidential ambitions,'' Villepin told his monthly news conference.

''My ambition for 2007 is to help the government be as efficient as possible and (bring about) the best results possible at the presidential election,'' he added.

The prime minister hinted he might be ready to support an election bid by his arch-rival within the conservative camp, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Without mentioning names, Villepin said he saw no reason why one of his ministers should not stand for president.

''I would clearly respect that choice, especially if that might be the winning or trump card for the ruling majority. I would be delighted,'' he said.

President Jacques Chirac has been in power since 1995 but is not expected to stand again at the 2007 ballot following a bout of ill health and a string of political reverses.

However, in a television interview this week he was coy about his future, refusing to rule out a third presidential bid.

Chirac's Socialist adversary in the 2002 election, Lionel Jospin, said on Wednesday he did not rule out running again.

''If it turns out that I'm the best placed to unite the Socialists, unite the left, unite the country ... and to propose solutions to get out of the current crisis... I will be asking myself that question,'' he told TF1 television.

Former prime minister Jospin stepped out of politics after he suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2002 presidential poll, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen forced him out of the second round runoff against Chirac.

Jospin said Socialist members would decide on the party's candidate in a vote in the autumn.

''To me, now, several months from the moment when these decisions are being taken, this question is an open question,'' he said.

Polls indicate Sarkozy is most likely to face Socialist regional leader Segolene Royal in a runoff in 2007.

Villepin, who received firm backing from Chirac in the interview on Monday evening, showered praise on the 73-year-old president, saying he remained ''a formidable asset'' for France.

Reuters SK VP0152

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