'Insult' sparks French election fury
Paris - France's election contest turned into something of a mudslinging match on Wednesday after Socialist challenger Francois Hollande was reported to have called President Nicolas Sarkozy a "nasty piece of work".
Outraged Sarkozy allies seized on the report in Le Parisien newspaper to denounce the left-wing presidential poll favourite and demand a public apology before it was even possible to confirm or clarify the comments attributed to Hollande.
Dominique Dord, treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party, described the reported comment as "revolting" and said in a text message to Reuters that Hollande should pull out of the presidential race, with the election now less than four months away.
"We are all deeply shocked," said the head of Sarkozy's UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope.
"This is not the standard expected of a presidential candidate," said government minister Nadine Morano, one of many other UMP party members to pounce on the reported comment.
"I demand a public apology."
The furore was triggered by a truncated quotation in an article in Le Parisien, where the author described a lunch conversation with Hollande and reports that he spoke of Sarkozy as a "failed president" and a "sale mec", a French term that roughly translates as "nasty piece of work" or "nasty guy".
Socialist Party officials told Reuters their presidential challenger had not directly insulted the incumbent president during the press lunch in question and that his words had been taken out of context.
"The remarks were not said that way, or in any case in that sense," Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, one of his campaign spokeswomen, told BFM TV, a news channel.
The pre-election skirmish was reminiscent of a previous election standoff in 2002 where Socialist contender Lionel Jospin described rival Jacques Chirac as "old and worn out".
That personal attack was widely regarded as having hurt Jospin, who was knocked out of the presidential contest in a poll shock that propelled far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into a runoff that Chirac ultimately won.