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In France, Sarkozy and Hollande battle links to dubious characters

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 noire?

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 Straus-Kahn?

On Monday morning, 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. 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 Socialist MP Julien Dray 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 TV 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 ex-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 explained, 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 despite the furor, 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 real, would seem to show that the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi had agreed to finance Mr. Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign with a 50-million euro donation. The document, made out to Mr. Sarkozy's close aide and sometime cabinet minister Brice Hortefeux, was signed by the notorious Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa.

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

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But the Libyan dictator was on friendly terms with Mr. Sarkozy's government in 2007. Shortly after the president took office, the Libyan strongman (who was mobbed to death in the summer of 2011) was allowed a state visit to France, where he pitched his Bedouin tent on the grounds of the Elysee Palace, home to the president.

Polls currently 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. 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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About the Author
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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