Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of addressing "fake workers" at a construction site in the Paris suburbs.
The French President has yet to officially enter this spring's election race, but the visit was a campaign event in all but name. The building site's 67 workers had been ordered home because of the severe cold, and the Elysée Palace was therefore obliged to add a cast of "non-workers".
About 100 people in hard-hats seen on the television news welcoming Mr Sarkozy to the site had been drafted in for the occasion, it emerged yesterday. Half of them were site workers who were ordered by their employers to go back and pretend to work. Others were staff and managers from other building sites. Some were mystery guests pretending to be labourers, Europe 1 radio reported yesterday.
Ambroise, a brick-layer, told the radio station: "There were two or three people I knew but I've no idea who the others were." Another employee said that workers, and managers, had been ordered by bosses to travel from building sites on the other side of the county. Some of the "workers" were complete strangers, he said.
The Elysée Palace did not deny that workers were bussed in. "We simply wanted to give an opportunity to meet the President to everyone who has worked on this side in the past or may in the future," a spokesman said.
One of the hard-hatted workers asked Mr Sarkozy on camera: "Candidate or not a candidate?" The President replied: "Are we on camera or not on camera?"
The event, at Mennecy in the Essonne region, south of Paris, was part of a series of public visits and off-the-record chats organised to allow Mr Sarkozy to be a candidate for re-election in the two round election in April and May without admitting it. Officially, the President plans to declare in early March but the popularity of his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, may force him to declare earlier.
In the meantime, the Elysée Palace has been quelling disquiet and dissent in the President's centreright ranks by organising inspired leaks and clearly electoral "presidential" events.
Mr Sarkozy's appearance at the site in Essonne was intended to publicise his promise to build more private and social housing by expanding existing construction permits by 30 per cent. This was one of a series of proposals – including a higher rate of VAT to ease payroll taxes on employers – he unveiled in a TV interview last Sunday.
Mr Sarkozy's opinion poll ratings have improved in recent days but so have those of the front-runner, Mr Hollande. What had appeared to be developing into a four-horse race for the first round on 22 April has reverted – perhaps temporarily – into a two-way contest. Three recent polls give Mr Hollande between 31 and 34 per cent of the first round vote, with Mr Sarkozy on 24 to 26 per cent. The far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, has dropped back to 15 to 19 per cent, while the centrist "dark horse" François Bayrou has fallen to about 12 per cent.
All three polls were conducted after Mr Hollande's powerful performances at his first large campaign rally in Le Bourget near Paris and during a TV debate last week. They also followed Mr Sarkozy's TV interview on Sunday, shown simultaneously on nine channels, in which he came close to declaring his candidature.