Faced with renewed allegations that Moammar Gadhafi had poured up to 50 million euros into Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007, the French president finally lost it. "If he did (finance my election), I wasn't very grateful," he snapped on prime-time television.
Sarkozy, after all, was the prime mover of the bombing campaign that brought Gadhafi down, while the man who made the original accusation during that war was Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the late Libyan dictator's son and hardly an impartial witness. It was mainly a measure of how much Sarkozy is disliked in France that he had to go on major French television channels once again last week to deny the eight-month-old story.
Plausible or not, many people want to believe the story because it provides a rational basis for their loathing of the man. And Sarkozy's own behaviour, as he flails around with growing desperation for some new policy that will bring the voters back to his side, is equally unattractive.
His latest proposal, made last Tuesday, was to cancel the Schengen Agreement, the treaty that provides for freedom of movement within the European Union. Unless the EU as a whole agrees within a year to cut drastically the number of foreigners allowed to settle within its boundaries, he said, France will leave the treaty and reimpose its own border controls.
Sarkozy, whose own ancestors were Hungarian and Greek immigrants, was aiming this policy directly at France's anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim voters, but it is unlikely to woo them away from the real neo-fascist party in the country. Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, immediately replied by promising to cut immigration by 95 per cent, and for good measure added a promise to quit the common European currency, the euro.
Meanwhile, Francois Hollande, the Socialist leader, cruises towards what seems like an inevitable victory in next month's presidential election despite the fact he has never held any high government office. Everybody agrees he is a very nice man, but he would never have got the Socialist nomination if Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the World Bank, had not ruined his chances by getting caught up in several sex scandals.
It's odd the polls should be predicting Hollande will win the election, given he is an old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialist in a time of financial crisis when most French voters, rightly or wrongly, think the solution is spending cuts and balanced budgets. Being a lifelong party apparatchik doesn't win him many points either. The only rational explanation is that he is benefiting from the anybody-but-Sarkozy mood of the electorate.
Sarkozy can be cruel about Hollande, comparing him to a sugar cube: It looks solid, but put it in water and it will dissolve to nothing. But that's no more cruel than the French public's assessment of Sarkozy himself. He is generally seen as a flashy, fast-talking salesman who lacks the gravity to be president and whose promises to make France a more competitive, more prosperous society have all come to nought.
A fair person might argue Sarkozy's inability to transform France is not really his fault, as he entered office just before the financial collapse of 2008 wrecked everybody's big plans, including his. But politics is not about fairness, and in the popular view, his administration has been a failure.
Then there's Francois Bayrou, a perennial presidential candidate whose main attraction is that he is none of the above. Every party he ever led -- and he has led quite a few in his career -- eventually collapsed because he couldn't get along with the members. He's pro-European, orthodox in economics, but with a social conscience -- the ideal centrist. But he has never won more than 18 per cent of the popular vote, and this time he's sitting at 13 per cent.
Marine Le Pen, for all her success in softening the image of the National Front, is only predicted to win 16 per cent of the vote in the latest poll, so it comes down to a two-horse race: Hollande versus Sarkozy. They will be the top two candidates who go through to the all-important second round on May 6 -- and then Sarkozy will almost certainly lose.
In the first round of voting, a four-way race, neither Sarkozy nor Hollande is likely to get more than 30 per cent of the vote. (Currently, each man is predicted to win 28 per cent.) But when every other candidate's votes must go to one of the two leading candidates in the second round, Francois Hollande wins hands down. No opinion poll this year has given Hollande less than 54 per cent of the vote in the run-off, and some have given him as much as 60 per cent.
Nicolas Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, but this is a gap that is almost impossible to close in the time remaining. France is going to have a Socialist president for only the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.