A group of senior French politicians, from right, left and centre, have signed a petition warning against the "drift towards monarchy" in the style and policies of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The petition – which has enraged the President and his closest supporters – was signed by his party colleague, the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, and by the defeated Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal.
Other signatories include the centrist politician François Bayrou and Pierre Lefranc, a former head of the private office of Charles de Gaulle. The former president Jacques Chirac is said to have considered signing the petition but decided not to.
Without naming President Sarkozy directly, the petition warns of a "drift towards a purely personal form of power bordering on an elected monarchy". The scarcely disguised attack came as M. Sarkozy's popularity has slumped through a mixture of disapproval of his showbiz life-style and discontent with a sluggish French economy.
In a new CSA poll for the newspaper Le Parisien yesterday, only 41 per cent of those asked thought that M. Sarkozy was a "good president of the Republic".
The petition, drawn up by the centre-left and fiercely republican news magazine, Marianne, provoked an explosion from M. Sarkozy's supporters. They said the statement had been signed by a "syndicate of bad losers" wanting to challenge the democratic choice made by the French people only nine months ago.
Mme Royal and M. Bayrou were the President's chief opponents in the last elections. M. Villepin, from the same centre-right party as M. Sarkozy, is a long-time rival who faces legal action for trying to smear him in 2004.
M. Sarkozy is said to have been personally wounded by the petition, which he regards as part of an unprecedented media campaign to "lynch" a sitting president. The Elysée Palace hopes that a coalition of such disparate personalities, all known "Sarko haters" will in fact revive sympathy for the head of state.
After appearing supremely assured and unstoppable in his first months in office, M. Sarkozy has suffered a string of public relations disasters in past weeks. His most recent attempt to recapture the headlines, and the moral policy agenda – suggesting that all 10-year-olds should be "twinned" with a child who died in the Holocaust – backfired badly. His divorce and rapid remarriage to the singer, Carla Bruni has also helped melt his popularity in the polls.