Did President Sarkozy Really Call a Journalist a Pedophile?

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Remy de la Mauviniere/AP

Sharp-tongued French President Nicolas Sarkozy has become (in)famous for his verbal pugilism—a big reason why he’s taken a battering over comments that were, naturellement, assumed to be more offensive than they were. So much for a reputation as the fastest lip in the west.

Following the lead of French media, the global press has fired off withering reports of a livid Sarkozy accusing a hostile questioner of being a pedophile. Accounts describe Sarkozy turning on a journalist questioning him on suspicions of possible ties to an alleged illegal kick-back scheme that arose from a defense contract in the mid-1990s. Infuriated by the bad press that a legal inquiry into the matter has caused him, articles said, Sarkozy responded by telling the reporter, “it appears you’re a pedophile, (and) I’m convinced that’s true”.

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Were that not bad enough, Sarkozy later exited the Nov. 19 the off-the-record discussion with journalists with the shout, “See you tomorrow, pedophile friends!” Given his previous record of insulting comments—including ordering a man who refused to shake his hand during a public appearance in 2008 to “Bugger off, you poor a___hole”—the notion of Sarkozy fending off questions about his honesty with pedophile accusations seemed entirely feasible.

The snag is, that’s not how things went down. An audio recording that captured the exchange—put online by daily paper Libération Wednesday—makes it clear Sarkozy was neither angry nor aggressive in making the pedophile comment. It also finds Sarkozy using the public charge of pedophilia as comparison to how damaging it is to politicians when the media goes big with reports on suspicions of wrong-doing when no evidence proving them has been found. And rather than smearing all reporters present with the charge of pedophilia, Sarkozy’s parting salutation was in fact a risible manner of noting the hyperbole of his example. Fairly innocuous, but effective in generating lots of misplaced consternation about presidential verbal abuse.

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So what happens now that it turns out the excitement was all smoke, no fire? Many French pundits have simply switched gears with the same topic: rather than fretting over Sarkozy’s uncontrollable temper, many commentators are now debating whether his use of the pedophile comparison isn’t another sign he lacks the reserve and hauteur required of France’s presidents. What’s French for “you can’t win for losing”?