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Rumours of association with disgraced politicians taint rivals in French election

Posters of France's Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, and current French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are posted in front of a school in Marseille. The second round of the presidential elections will take place on May 6.

Claude Paris/Associated Press

As France's presidential election enters its final days, the media seem to have focused on one burning question: Which candidate's bête is more noir?

Is it President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is rumoured to have rubbed so close to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi that some of the gold came off? Or is it his Socialist challenger François Hollande, who can't seem to avoid contact with the disgraced former International Monetary Fund boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

On Monday, Paris's two conservative daily newspapers, Le Figaro and Le Parisien, filled their front pages with photos of Mr. Hollande beside fresh ones of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who has been an unmentionable figure among Socialists since a scandal last year in which he faced sex charges, which were then dropped, related to events in a New York hotel room and then became embroiled in a scandal in northern France involving a prostitution ring.

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"DSK: The surprise invitation," read Le Parisien's banner headline, using the common acronym for Mr. Strauss-Kahn. Actually, this was a fairly indirect connection: Mr. Hollande's two top campaign aides, Pierre Moscovici and Manuel Valls, had attended a birthday party for a fellow Socialist at a racy disco bar over the weekend, and had stayed even after realizing that Mr. Strauss-Kahn was a guest. In fact, one of them had gone so far as to speak to the partisan pariah.

But so eager is Mr. Hollande to avoid filth by association in a final leg of this tight-fought campaign that he immediately went on television to denounce DSK. "He no longer has a role in political life and thus should not be part of a campaign nor in any images that could potentially lead people to believe he is coming back," the presidential candidate said.

His former common-law wife, former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, went even further, explaining that she'd shown up at the party and stormed off upon learning of DSK's presence. "I left," she later said, according to Radio France International, "because it is out of the question for me to meet with Dominique Strauss-Kahn if only out of concern for the rights and respect due to women."

But Mr. Hollande's guilt-by-very-indirect-association may pale in comparison to Mr. Sarkozy's trial-by-dodgy-document.

On Saturday, the investigative website Mediapart published a document which, if authentic, would seem to show that Colonel Gadhafi offered to finance Mr. Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign with a €50-million ($65.4-million) donation. The document, addressed to Mr. Sarkozy's close aide and sometimes cabinet minister Brice Hortefeux, was signed by Moussa Koussa, then Libya's notorious foreign minister. (Mr. Koussa, for his part, has said the document is a fake, according to the BBC).

The documents were denounced as forgeries by Mr. Sarkozy, who said on Monday that he would sue Mediapart for damages. The website has had a track record of exposing scandals, including one involving funds donated to Mr. Sarkozy's UMP party by the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

"Do you think that with all that I'd done to Mr. Gadhafi, he'd have made me a bank transfer? Why not a signed cheque?" Mr. Sarkozy asked in a television interview Monday.

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The French President was a leading advocate of the NATO-led bombing campaign that helped rebel forces oust Col. Gadhafi last year. But the Libyan dictator was on friendly terms with Mr. Sarkozy's government back in 2007. Shortly after the President took office, the Libyan strongman, killed soon after he was captured by rebels last fall, was allowed a state visit to France, where he pitched his Bedouin tent on the grounds of a government guest house near the Élysée Palace, home to the President.

Polls show Mr. Hollande leading Mr. Sarkozy by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, with a day of rallies Tuesday and a major debate Wednesday still to go before Sunday's election. So both the dictator's big tent and DSK's dubious disco are images the candidates want to keep off the front pages.

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International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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