Why the rumours about Sarkozy refuse to go away

Clumsy attempts to silence speculation about President keeps story in the headlines
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The Independent Online

In classical French farce, characters exist in a perpetual state of comic misapprehension. Each attempt to clarify events brings deeper confusion. Trousers fall down frequently.

The farce now playing in Paris – to the increasing bemusement rather than amusement of the French public – might be called Une affaire d'état or the President Strikes Back. Trousers, we are reliably told, have never fallen down.

In the latest scene yesterday, it was the turn of the former French minister for justice Rachida Dati to dash on to the national stage. In a radio interview Ms Dati denounced rumours that she was responsible for rumours that her estranged mentor, President Nicolas Sarkozy, and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were having extramarital affairs.

It was "extremely scandalous" that she should be accused of such things, she said. It was equally "absolutely unacceptable", she said, that baseless rumours should circulate on the internet – and in the international press – about the French first couple.

Leaks and statements from the Elysée Palace had previously indicated that Mr Sarkozy held Ms Dati responsible for the original rumours.

Counter-leaks and statements from the Elysée Palace yesterday suggested that the President thought no such thing. But why, after ignoring the rumours for a month, did President Sarkozy abruptly decide last week to go on the counter-attack? Elysée media advisers have threatened a campaign of legal terror. They have suggested that the rumours were part of an elaborate "plot" by international financial markets; or by Ms Dati; or by Mr Sarkozy's great political rival, Dominique de Villepin.

Two journalists have been fired from the website of a Sunday newspaper that belongs to a friend of the President. A preliminary criminal investigation was launched on Tuesday by the Paris public prosecutor into the "dissemination of false information" on the internet by "persons unknown".

It was confirmed yesterday that President Sarkozy had ordered the French counter-intelligence agency to track down the original source of the rumours. It was denied, however, that the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Interieure (DCRI) had bugged suspected culprits. It was especially denied that the DCRI, the French equivalent to MI5, had bugged Ms Dati.

The DCRI, it appears, is merely tracking the footprints of the rumour through Twitter and into the French blogosphere and into the international press. If so, the newspaper Libération has already done most of the work.

Act One, Scene One, 17 February, 9.30am. Hervé S., a left-wing activist in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, posted a message on the micro-blogging site Twitter. "I hate celebrity politics but this could be important. Our dear President has been dumped. Is it true?" The tweet, according to Libération, then gave the names of the people that the French first couple were alleged to be sleeping with. According to other accounts, the rumours had already appeared in blogs in January.

The allegations – without any reference to fact and, it appears, utterly baseless – spread through the Twittersphere and blogosphere and appeared on 9 March in a blog on the website of the respected newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. This was taken by some newspapers in Britain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland as sufficient proof to justify front-page articles.

Why has the Elysée Palace become belatedly convinced that there was a plot, which needs to be investigated? Political friends as well as political foes believe that these decisions were driven by the anger not so much of the President but of the President's wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The consequences, they say, have been calamitous. The Elysée has been made to look paranoid.

The former Socialist party leader François Hollande complained yesterday that there was a "nauseating... climate of decay" emerging from the Elysée Palace. That sounds more like a line from classical tragedy than from French farce.

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