PARIS - Disgraced ex-IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once tipped to win France's presidential vote, made a dramatic incursion into the campaign Saturday with a claim Nicolas Sarkozy orchestrated his downfall.
The accusation came as the battle between Sarkozy and Francois Hollande grew ever more bitter, with the incumbent accusing the front-running Socialist of subjecting him to a "Stalinist trial" over his bid to woo the far right.
Strauss-Kahn, in his first major newspaper interview since his disgrace a year ago, told Britain's The Guardian newspaper that his spectacular fall was orchestrated by opponents to prevent him standing as Socialist candidate.
The ex-International Monetary Fund boss had been favoured to win the vote until May last year, when he was arrested in New York and accused of sexually assaulting hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo. The charges were later dropped.
Strauss-Kahn said that although he did not believe the incident was a setup, the subsequent escalation of the event into a criminal investigation was "shaped by those with a political agenda".
"Perhaps I was politically naive, but I simply did not believe that they would go that far -- I didn't think they could find anything that could stop me," he told the British daily.
The Guardian said it was clear that the "they" refers to people working for Sarkozy and his UMP party.
A New York lawyer representing Diallo in an ongoing civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn dismissed the claim as "utter nonsense", while Sarkozy himself flatly rejected the accusation.
"Enough is enough! I would tell Mr. Strauss-Kahn to explain himself to the law and spare the French his remarks," he said in central France while on the campaign trail to get himself re-elected on May 6.
Opinion polls say Hollande will win the run-off against Sarkozy. Strauss-Kahn said he was sure he would now be in Hollande's shoes had it not been for the events at the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan on May 14 last year.
"I planned to make my formal announcement on 15 June and I had no doubt I would be the candidate of the Socialist Party," said Strauss-Kahn, who refused to discuss with The Guardian a separate sex scandal that has erupted in France.
Sarkozy said that when he thought of all the "scandalous, shameful episodes" that Strauss-Kahn had allegedly been involved in in the United States and France, he was shocked that the ex-IMF chief should dare to speak out now.
"Mr. Strauss-Kahn starts giving lessons in morality and saying I am the only one responsible for what happened to him, well, that really is too much!", he said.
Sarkozy was again under pressure Saturday over the financing of his 2007 campaign after a news website reported late Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi's regime had agreed to fund the election bid to the tune of 50 million euros.
His campaign spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet dismissed the latest report as "ridiculous" and a "clumsy diversion" orchestrated by Hollande's camp.
She said Sarkozy's 2007 campaign funds were cleared by the Constitutional Council after the elections with no queries. Sarkozy has previously been accused of getting illegal campaign support from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Hollande and Sarkozy were expected to call a brief truce later Saturday when both head for a soccer match at the Stade de France in Paris to watch third-tier outsiders Quevilly battle Lyon for the French Cup.
But the gloves have come off in recent days, with Hollande accusing his rival of "transgression" in his bid to secure the votes of the 6.5 million who plumped for far-right leader Marine Le Pen in last Sunday's first round.
Sarkozy has veered to the right to reach out to the former political pariah Le Pen, insisting her values are not incompatible with France's republican tradition and vowing to secure Europe's borders and fight multiculturalism.
Le Pen did well in the first round among white working-class voters who might once have backed the left, and Hollande is also scrambling to recruit voters who backed the anti-immigrant, anti-European National Front leader.
He said in a concession to the millions worried about France's national identity that immigration needs to be better regulated and that he will keep a law that Sarkozy passed that bans the full-face veil worn by some Muslim women.
Le Pen is not expected to endorse either candidate before May 6, and is thought to relish the prospect that a defeat for Sarkozy would leave the centre-right in disarray before legislative elections in June.
Sarkozy complained at a rally on Friday that he was being subjected to what amounted to a Stalinist show trial but that all he wanted to do was to "talk to the 6.5 million French who voted Marine Le Pen".
Le Pen won just short of 18 percent in the first round, not enough to join Hollande or Sarkozy in the run-off but enough to make her supporters a tempting pool of potential second-round voters.
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