Benedict Brogan: Francois Hollande, DSK and the sex shop birthday party: what French politicians are really talking about
DIRTY tricks have always played a part in French presidential debates. In the legendary encounter between Valerie Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterand, VGE tied to put off his challenger by repeatedly dropping references to the town where the President kept his not-so-secret mistress; Mitterand in turn put a folder on the table in front of him with 'diamonds' written on it and tapped it from time to time, suggesting he had material to share about VGE's involvement in the Bokassa diamond scandal. It later transpired the file was empty, a stage prop.
Last night there was a bit of that. François Hollande mentioned Mme Bettencourt, which was a way of reminding people of charges that she funded Nicolas Sarkozy's past campaigns. And they discussed Dominique Strauss Kahn, the spectacular affair that overturned French politics last year and cleared the way for M Hollande's candidacy. Mr Sarkozy suggested that Mr Hollande knew about DSK's private life; he was Pontiius Pilate for washing his hands of it. "You had information, I didn't," Mr Hollande shot back. Sarko's smile said he knew this was rubbish, but chose to let it go. The potential for damage on both sides is considerable.
But why was Sarko smiling? Perhaps he was thinking about a current source of gossip among French politicians and journalists that hasn't made the front pages, namely the birthday party on Saturday night for socialist bigwig Julien Dray at the J'Ose (I dare) nightclub. It has lots of spicy elements, not least that the venue is a former clip joint in the Rue St Denis, the capital's historic red light district, and is surrounded by sex shops. It helps too that Mr Dray was the subject of a judicial inquiry into alleged embezzlement. But the detail that has everyone chortling and the socialists reddening is an unwise encounter between Mr Hollande's campaign team, who were there in force, and none other than DSK, now a socialist pariah and a source of constant embarrassment to the French left. Segolene Royal, who was there, walked out when she heard that DSK was in the room. She has described him as 'undesirable' and an 'insult to women'.
But others weren't so smart: Manuel Valls, Mr Hollande's communications chief, and Pierre Moscovici, Mr Hollande's campaign director who is tipped as a possible future foreign minister, have tied themselves in knots trying to explain whether or not they chatted to DSK. The charge is they spoke to him at length, which raises questions about propriety given that DSK is the subject of various legal procedures. There's also a lot of indignant steam on the right about the number of left wing journalists who were there (given the incestuous relations between journalists and Camp Sarko, that's a bit overdone).
Of course, little of this will make big headlines. And it's come too late. Last night's debate looks to have sealed the deal for Mr Hollande who, it should be stressed, wasn't there. But at the very least it tells us that the DSK business continues to trouble the socialists, and could still come and cause the future president difficulties.