France's presidential contest got personal on Wednesday after Socialist challenger Francois Hollande branded President Nicolas Sarkozy a "nasty piece of work".
Outraged Sarkozy allies seized on the report in Le Parisien newspaper to denounce the left-wing presidential poll favourite, demanding a public apology even before it was possible to confirm or clarify the comments attributed to Hollande.
The Socialist candidate, accused by some allies of being too soft on his conservative rival, made no effort to disown the remarks.
"Enough is enough. What I have to say to Nicolas Sarkozy I will say publicly and directly, and not via intermediaries," he said.
The furore was triggered by a truncated quotation in an article in Le Parisien, where the author described a lunch conversation with Hollande and reports that he spoke of Sarkozy as a "failed president" and a "sale mec", a French term that roughly translates as "nasty piece of work" or "nasty guy".
His reported outburst came the day after the Socialist published an open letter to French voters in which he accused Sarkozy of running the economy onto the rocks. That signalled a sharp change in tone by the usually avuncular Hollande, whose own supporters want a more aggressive approach to the incumbent.
Dominique Dord, treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party, described Hollande's comment as "revolting" and said in a text message to Reuters that the Socialist challenger should pull out of the presidential race.
"We are all deeply shocked," said the head of Sarkozy's UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope.
"This is not the standard expected of a presidential candidate," said government minister Nadine Morano, one of many other UMP party members to pounce on the reported comment. "I demand a public apology."
Socialist Party officials told Reuters their presidential challenger had not directly insulted the incumbent president during the press lunch in question and that his words had been taken out of context.
"The remarks were not said that way, or in any case in that sense," Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, one of his campaign spokeswomen, told BFM TV, a news channel.
Responding to the furore, Le Parisien posted a story on its website that recounted a fuller version of events at the Hollande lunch with a selection of journalists, and above all a complete quotation put into context.
Hollande had, it said, discussed what Sarkozy's campaign tactics would be and had then put himself in Sarkozy's shoes to say: "I'm a president who has failed for five years, I'm a nasty piece of work, but re-elect me because in these hard times, I am the only one who can do it."
The pre-election skirmish had echoes of a previous election spat in 2002 where Socialist contender Lionel Jospin described rival Jacques Chirac as "old and worn out".
That personal attack was widely regarded as having hurt Jospin, who was knocked out of the presidential contest in a shock that propelled far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into a runoff ballot that Chirac won.
Either way, the tone was distinctly more hostile in the run-up to a two-round presidential ballot where Hollande and Sarkozy are widely expected to go to the runoff on May 6.