With nine months to go before the first round of voting, the 2012 French presidential election is already shaping up to be one of the nastiest in history.
Martine Aubry, the Socialist Party's leader and presidential contender, has taken the unusual step of publicly denouncing rumours that are proliferating on the internet about her husband, her health and her private life. In particular, Ms Aubry, 60, the mayor of Lille, has threatened to sue websites which refuse to remove material claiming that her husband, a distinguished French lawyer, is a secret Islamist radical.
Although the websites appear to have an allegiance to the racist, extreme right, Ms Aubry made it clear that she believed members of President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), were behind the campaign. She even suggested that the attacks on her husband had been inspired by a cryptic remark made by President Sarkozy in January 2010.
Other rumours circulating on the French language internet and blogosphere make claims about Ms Aubry's private life and her health.
The campaign, which started last year but has intensified since Ms Aubry declared herself a presidential candidate last month, has added to the atmosphere of suspicion and name-calling between left and right generated by "l'affaire DSK".
Some left-wing politicians have suggested that the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on rape charges in New York in May was part of a political plot hatched in Paris. There is no credible evidence to support these claims but there is some evidence the Sarkozy camp had intended to use allegations about DSK's previous sexual activities as part of a whispering campaign if he joined the presidential race. Centre-right politicians retort that derogatory rumours about President Sarkozy have been circulating for years.
Ms Aubry said she had no fear of personal attacks but would not tolerate mendacious assaults on her husband, Jean-Louis Brochen. According to a series of lurid claims on websites, blogs and Facebook accounts, Mr Brochen, 66, a distinguished Lille-based lawyer, is a "secret" Islamist fundamentalist. The only evidence offered is that Mr Brochen has occasionally defended Muslim clients.
Although the claims are made mostly by xenophobic far-right sites, the claims have been repeated on the Facebook account of at least one senior UMP activist.
The UMP party leader Jean-François Copé yesterday dismissed any suggestions that his party was behind the campaign against Ms Aubry. However, Mr Copé has recently taken to making cryptic remarks about Ms Aubry's alleged "softness" on Islamic issues.