French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday he would sue news website Mediapart for publishing a document which it says proves that the government of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sought to fund his 2007 election campaign.
As Sarkozy fights an uphill battle for re-election, his team is hitting back against the claims in a 2006 letter allegedly from Libya's former secret services that discussed an "agreement in principle" to pay 50 million euros for Sarkozy's campaign.
The allegation, which has gripped French media six days from the final round of France's presidential election, drew a chorus of rebuttals from Sarkozy's camp. But it may not be a game-changer at such a late stage in the contest, in a country where voters are accustomed to regular sleaze inquiries.
"We will file a complaint against Mediapart," Sarkozy told France 2 television. "Do you really think that with what I did to him, Mr. Gaddafi would have made me a bank transfer? Why not a signed check - it's grotesque."
The incumbent, who met Gaddafi in Paris in 2007, was a chief advocate for the airstrikes against his government during the 2011 uprising in Libya.
French warplanes were the first to bomb troops loyal to Gaddafi in a NATO-led campaign which resulted in his overthrow and killing at the hands of rebel forces last October.
Sarkozy, who did not say on what legal grounds he would sue, called the document an "obvious fake", saying that the two people in Libya who were meant to have sent the letter and received it have both denied being present.
Franco-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, one of the men which Mediapart said was present, told left-leaning newspaper Liberation in an interview published on Monday that he was not there when the document was signed but called it credible.
"I never witnessed discussions about financing Sarkozy's campaign in Libya. But there is little doubt about its authenticity," Takieddine said. "I have no proof. I only say that this document is credible."
Takieddine is himself under judicial inquiry concerning an arms sale to Pakistan in the 1990s.
The allegation comes at a decisive moment in Sarkozy's re-election campaign as he prepares to face off against Socialist Francois Hollande in a one-on-one TV debate which will draw millions of viewers on Wednesday.
In 2007, commentators said a heated exchange between Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal had tipped the balance in favour of the centre-right leader after Royal - Hollande's former partner - lost her cool in a debate about handicapped children.
But Sarkozy was ahead in polls one week before the deciding round in 2007, while this time he faces more difficult odds.
A poll by Ipsos-Logica for France Inter on Monday showed Hollande leading with 53 percent support versus 47 percent for Sarkozy. A Reuters survey of recent polls average out at a score of 54 percent for the Socialist.
In the Ipsos poll, Hollande fell one point to 53 since the last Ipsos survey, while Sarkozy gained a point as more backers of centrist candidate Francois Bayrou shifted to the incumbent's camp. But those transfers were not enough to upset Hollande's lead, Ipsos director Brice Teinturier told France Inter radio.
While scandals and verbal duels have often overshadowed policy debates in the campaign, surveys show that voters are most concerned about resolving France's economic woes and restoring growth as jobless claims continue to rise, reaching their highest level since September 1999.
Interviewed on Europe 1 radio, Hollande did not comment on the Gaddafi financing document directly, but addressed claims by Sarkozy and others that Mediapart was a "left-wing cell" whose only purpose was to upset the incumbent's presidency.
"This web site has already taken on left-wing personalities, it is staffed by well-known journalists," Hollande said. "The justice system must address this...If it's a fake, the site will be convicted."
At tension rises before next Sunday's ballot, Sarkozy has atacked Hollande on several fronts in recent days, accusing the man who could become the first left-wing president in 17 years of maintaining relations with controversial figures.
He said last week that controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan had endorsed Hollande, which the Swiss academic has denied.
On Monday, Sarkozy opened a new attack after news over the weekend that many of Hollande's team attended a party last weekend where they rubbed shoulders with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socalist former IMF chief whose career and presidential ambitions were abruptly halted a year ago when he was arrested on now-dropped charges of raping a New York hotel maid.
Hollande, interviewed on Europe 1 radio, said: I have already said that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has not been involved in this election campaign and it is not his place to show up now".