France's former prime minister Francois Fillon Sunday complained of a "plot" against him, amid media revelations he sought to interfere in legal procedures against Nicolas Sarkozy, a rival in the right-wing opposition.
Leading daily Le Monde claimed that Fillon had in June urged President Francois Hollande's chief of staff to push along the several legal complaints against Sarkozy.
"Hit him quickly, hit him quickly... you know if you don't hit him quickly, you'll see him come back, so do it," Fillon is alleged to have told Jean-Pierre Jouyet, Hollande's right-hand man at the Elysee Palace.
Fillon has denied this and the former prime minister under Sarkozy's presidency, who hopes to run as the candidate of the right-wing UMP in the 2017 presidential election, hit out in the Journal du Dimanche weekly.
"I can only see in these incredible attacks an attempt at destabilisation and a plot," complained Fillon.
He has said he will sue for defamation against two Le Monde reporters, who made the claims in a book, as well as the daily itself.
On Sunday evening Fillon told French television that Jouyet was "lying".
Fillon, Sarkozy and former PM Alain Juppe are the three main UMP candidates likely to run against the embattled Hollande and the high-flying far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017.
The three men used to work closely together. During Sarkozy's presidency, Fillon was prime minister and Juppe was foreign minister.
Jouyet, meanwhile, straddles the two camps. Chief of staff to Socialist Hollande, he was a junior minister in Fillon's UMP government.
In a statement to AFP, Jouyet acknowledged that Fillon had shared with him his "serious worries" about the so-called Bygmalion affair, which relates to the financing of Sarkozy's 2012 campaign.
Jouyet told AFP he had stressed to Fillon that the presidency would not make "any intervention" in a legal case.
Hollande's chief of staff had on Thursday denied that Fillon had mentioned Sarkozy's legal woes.
Another UMP presidential candidate, Bruno Le Maire, on Sunday said Jouyet had "lied to the French people" and called for his resignation, in a French television discussion.
Sarkozy, who announced his comeback to frontline French politics amid much fanfare in September, is mired in a host of legal woes, notably over the financing of his 2012 presidential campaign.
The energetic 59-year-old has criss-crossed France in a bid to drum up support for his bid to win the UMP presidency -- which he intends to use as a springboard for the 2017 election -- but polls show he has failed to inspire voters.
The turmoil in the French opposition has also failed to benefit Hollande, who is the most unpopular president in French history, according to polls.
High unemployment, stagnant growth and unseemly political infighting is playing into the hands of Le Pen, who would likely win through to a second round of a presidential election if it were held now, surveys show.
Le Pen took aim at Jouyet and the French political class saying: "They're all the same... they are all working together."
"These men have made politics what it is today."
And this latest "affair" may not leave Hollande unscathed, as his chief of staff Jouyet is implicated in the story.
In July, Hollande forcefully denied meddling in the legal battles facing his old adversary Sarkozy.
"I not only did not do it (influence the justice system) but I couldn't even have thought about it as it goes so against the concept of democracy and also the spirit of my responsibility," he said in a television interview on France's national day.
Fillon does not deny having lunch with Jouyet at a restaurant close to the Elysee Palace, but told Le Journal du Dimanche that he was "disgusted" by the story, which he said "discredits our democracy".
The two journalists in question say they have a "concrete" recording of a September 20 interview, which bears out their version of events and they will "hand it over to justice officials if they ask for it".