The front-running presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been shaken by accusations that the French security services had been ordered to investigate the finances of his main electoral rival, Ségolène Royal.
M. Sarkozy - responsible for internal security as Interior Minister - dismissed the report in an investigative newspaper as "slander and lies".
Accusations were made last week that M. Sarkozy's office had prompted an investigation by the Renseignements Généraux (RG) - similar to MI5 or Special Branch - into one of Mme Royal's advisers. Yesterday, the newspaper which made the allegation, Le Canard Enchaîné, said a senior officer in the RG had also ordered an investigation last November into property owned by Mme Royal and her partner, François Hollande.
The newspaper did not state directly that the investigation had been ordered by M. Sarkozy. It pointed out, however, that a member of M. Sarkozy's centre-right party had placed information about the value of Mme Royal and M. Hollande's three properties on the internet earlier this month together with an - inaccurate - allegation that they were evading wealth tax.
Socialist politicians called on President Jacques Chirac to dismiss him, and Mme Royal's lawyer called for an investigation by the independent authority on data privacy. As Interior Minister - equivalent to Home Secretary but more powerful - M. Sarkozy is responsible for police, internal security and the conduct of elections. He has insisted on remaining in the job, despite becoming the official presidential candidate of the ruling party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).
M. Sarkozy is therefore vulnerable to accusations of conflict of interest or using state resources for political ends - or private ones. He has been accused this week of mobilising a vast army of police officers to trace thieves who had stolen his son's scooter. His campaign team was accused, in another press report yesterday, of misusing the RG to harass and investigate neighbours of his campaign headquarters.
M. Sarkozy, 52, has taken a clear lead over the Socialist candidate, Mme Royal, in opinion polls over the past week. One suggested he would defeat Mme Royal in the second round, two-candidate, run-off on 6 May by 54 per cent to 46 per cent. Mme Royal's unconventional campaign has been destabilised by a series of her own gaffes and by alleged dirty tricks by the Sarkozy camp.
The accusations against M. Sarkozy - whether they prove well founded or not - attack him at his own weakest point. He is seen by many French people as an authoritarian and bullying figure, who might provoke social unrest if elected.
There is also a wider danger. The difficulties of the top candidates - and the outbreak of punch-and-judy politics - could estrange an already skittish electorate and scatter the first-round vote on 22 April to the extremes of right and left.
The Interior Minister suggested that all the allegations were a "smoke screen" generated by the left to cloak Mme Royal's difficulties. "All of this, everyone will realise, is just a diversion because the Socialist candidate is in real trouble because of some of her statements," he said.
The question arises who might be orchestrating a campaign of leaks against M. Sarkozy. M. Chirac, 74, has yet to endorse the campaign of his estranged former protégé. Although credited with only five per cent support for the first round on 22 April, M. Chirac has said he will not announce his intentions until next month.Reuse content