Sarkozy sorry for trading insults. Or is he?

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President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted publicly yesterday that he was wrong to trade insults with a bystander at an agricultural show at the weekend. Or rather, he did not.

The President's words of near-apology appeared in the transcript of an interview given by M. Sarkozy to readers of the newspaper, Le Parisien.

The editor revealed later that the President had said no such thing. The words of regret were inserted later, after the Elysée Palace asserted its right to revise the text.

Either way, it is unusual for M. Sarkozy to admit he has done something wrong. In the Elysée-revised version of the interview, the President said "it would have been better" if he had not responded to the man who had insulted him.

On Saturday, in a scene which has become one of the most sought-after clips on internet video sites, President Sarkozy was drawn into an unseemly slanging match with a visitor to the Salon de L'Agriculture in Paris. M. Sarkozy tried to shake the middle-aged man's hand during a walk-about. The bystander told the President not to touch him. M. Sarkozy replied, "Casse-toi", or "get lost". The man told him to take his dirty hands off him. The President responded: "Casse-toi, alors, pauvre con, va."

"Con" is a fairly mild swear word in French. The President's words can be translated as: "Sod off, you arsehole, get lost."

The incident has caused a great outcry in France, with M. Sarkozy's opponents claiming – not for the first time – that he behaved in an unpresidential way. Quite apart from anything else, the exchange was, on both sides, in the familiar second person or "tu" instead of the formal "vous". This, in itself, was startling to the ears of many of M. Sarkozy's older and more conservative supporters.

In a panel interview with readers of Le Parisien on Monday – published yesterday – a 40-year-old woman, Claude-Sophie Giraudet, told M. Sarkosy that she had been shocked "as a mother" by his behaviour.

She compared his reaction to that of the French footballer Zinedine Zidane, sent off in the World Cup final in 2006 for butting an Italian defender who had insulted his sister. In the published reply, President Sarkozy said: "It is difficult, even when you are a President, not to respond to an insult... Just because you're President, you're not there for people to wipe their feet on. All the same, it would have been better if I hadn't replied to him."

The editor of Le Parisien, Dominique de Montvalon, later revealed that M. Sarkozy had not expressed the "slightest regret" at the time. The final words were added by the Elysée Palace when the text was revised, something commonly allowed to politicians in France but rarely elsewhere.

The Elysée Palace said that the added words were "in the spirit" of what the President had meant to say. In the verbatim text, according to Le Parisien, M. Sarkozy admitted that he should not have said "casse-toi" or get lost. He did not express regrets for replying to the man, or using the word "con".

In the past four months, M. Sarkozy has slid from a poll rating in the mid 60s to only 37 per cent. In another part of yesterday's interview, the President said that he intended to ignore the polls and continue his "hyperactive" approach to his job.

"Without a hyperactive President, France will never change," he said. "I don't care about the next opinion poll... I just want people to be able to say at the end of my five years, that he prepared France to face the challenges of the world."

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