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Sarkozy under fire over claims he paid for opinion polls

Elysée Palace denies it financed surveys which the media ran as independent

The main French opposition party, the Socialists – delighted to have an issue to distract from their own internal back-stabbing – have accused the President of "scandalous collusion" with parts of the media.

The Elysée Palace, dismissing calls for a parliamentary inquiry, has rejected the cries of scandal as far-fetched. "We order opinion polls. If newspapers buy the same ones, what can we do?" said M. Sarkozy's chief aide and secretary general, Claude Guéant.

The revelations, made by the official financial watchdog, the Court of Auditors, are nonetheless deeply embarrassing. In the past two years, M. Sarkozy's office has paid €1.5m for private opinion polls, almost half of which were indistinguishable from those which were published elsewhere.

At best, the Elysée was wasting public money by paying for surveys which were already available for free on media websites. At worst, it was paying to influence the questions asked in the fortnightly Politiscope polls, which were presented as independent by the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro and the 24-hour news channel, LCI.

The Elysée also paid for 14 other polls which appeared in other parts of the print media.

The episode has caused great unease at Le Figaro, a newspaper which supports M. Sarkozy but whose journalists are jealous of their political independence. The editorial director, Etienne Mougeotte, rejected suggestions that its fortnightly Politiscope polls had been funded by the Elysée. He said that the newspaper had an annual contract with the polling organisation, OpinionWay.

But the journalists at the newspaper have declared their "consternation" and have called on Le Figaro to "put an end to co-productions... which gravely damage [our] credibility".

OpinionWay has been accused by politicians of the left and centre of being too close to President Sarkozy – an allegation it rejects. The surveys commissioned by the Elysée Palace were part of a consultancy contract awarded to Publifact a company run by a former journalist and friend of the President, Patrick Buisson.

OpinionWay and the Elysée Palace reject the allegations, saying the presidency was paying for other, more detailed, demographic questions.