French candidates battle scandal as polling day looms

France's President and UMP party candidate for the French 2012 presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy (L) arrives for his re-election campaign rally in Dijon April 27, 2012.

PARIS - The French presidential race entered the home straight Sunday with both incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande battling to shake off the taint of scandal.

Sarkozy accused Hollande supporters in the media of mounting a "despicable" smear against him by publishing a document purporting to show Moamer Khadafi's former Libyan regime agreeing to fund his previous presidential campaign in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Socialists were embarrassed when several senior figures in Hollande's campaign attended an ally's birthday celebration and found that disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had also been invited.

Both events revived interest in these long-running scandals just one week before France goes back to the polls and just days before Hollande and Sarkozy were to face off in a televised debate which could prove decisive.

The latest opinion poll published on Sunday by the LH2 institute for web portal Yahoo! forecast that Hollande would comfortably win the May 6 run-off by 54 per cent of the vote to Sarkozy's 46, with the gap narrowing.

But polling has yet to take into account the effects, if any, of the latest controversies, neither of which appear fatal to either campaign, but which may reinforce the voters' broader disdain for the political class.

On Saturday, investigative news website Mediapart published what it said was a copy of an internal Libyan regime document recording an alleged 2006 illegal funding deal between Tripoli and Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

According to the note, which Mediapart claims to have obtained from former regime figures ousted last year in the revolt against Khadafi's rule, Tripoli agreed to pay Sarkozy's 2007 campaign 50 million euros ($66 million).

"It's despicable. It's a forgery. Mediapart is well used to dishonesty. It's an agency in the service of the left," Sarkozy declared in an interview with Canal+ television, angrily dismissing the claim.

And the man to whom the memo was supposedly addressed - Bashir Saleh, Khadafi's former chief of staff and head of Libya's 40 billion dollar sovereign wealth fund - denied ever receiving such a communication.

Saleh is now living in exile in France, and his lawyer Pierre Haik sent AFP a statement expressing "grave reservations" over the authenticity of the note.

If any such transaction or even planned deal were ever proved, Sarkozy and his campaign staff could face criminal prosecution, but his allies came out strongly, dismissing the alleged evidence and attacking the report.

There are long-standing rumours that Sarkozy's victorious 2007 campaign benefited from illegal foreign funds, and Mediapart has been at the forefront of reporting on his camp's alleged links to shady middlemen.

Mediapart is a subscription website founded by a group of left-leaning journalists led by a former managing editor of the respected daily Le Monde and supported by a group of sympathetic wealthy investors.

Sarkozy's prime minister, Francois Fillon, also attacked former Socialist favourite Strauss-Kahn, accusing him of intervening in the campaign to make false allegations against Sarkozy.

Strauss-Kahn reportedly alleged in an interview with a US reporter that his arrest last year in New York on sex assault charges had been manipulated by Sarkozy's camp for political gain.

The charge surfaced this weekend as reporter Edward Epstein publicised an upcoming book by releasing extracts to the British daily The Guardian, but Strauss-Kahn insisted he had not spoken to the paper.

And the Strauss-Kahn case appears to have done more damage to the left, following an embarrassing farce late Saturday at a Paris bar on the Rue St Denis, an address historically synonymous with prostitution.

Leading Socialist figure Julien Dray invited Hollande's campaign director Pierre Moscovici, communications director Manuel Valls and former partner Segolene Royal to a drinks party in the bar to celebrate his birthday.

But he apparently failed to tell them he had also invited Strauss-Kahn, who is now a political pariah and under judicial investigation for his alleged ties to a prostitution network that supplied escorts for orgies.

Royal - who was the defeated Socialist candidate in 2007 and had four children with Hollande before they split in the same year - said she had left as soon as she heard Strauss-Kahn was coming, without seeing him.

Royal called Dray's behaviour "unacceptable" and Hollande said Strauss-Kahn was "no longer a political figure" and had no role in his campaign, refusing to comment on the guest list at the party.

Sarkozy has dedicated the closing stages of his campaign to wooing voters who backed the far-right's Marine Le Pen in the April 22 first round, and has lost no opportunity to remind the left of its ties to Strauss-Kahn.

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