France's presidential race headed into its home straight Saturday as ex-IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist once tipped to win the vote, blamed Nicolas Sarkozy for his spectacular downfall.
The claim came as the battle between Sarkozy and the front-running Francois Hollande grew ever more bitter, with the incumbent accusing the 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 The Guardian that his fall was orchestrated by opponents to prevent him from standing as the Socialist candidate in the election.
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 a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo. The charges were later dropped.
Strauss-Kahn said that although he did not believe the incident with Diallo 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," Strauss-Kahn told the British daily.
The Guardian said it is clear that the "they" refers to people working for Sarkozy and his UMP party.
Strauss-Kahn accuses the agents of intercepting phone calls and ensuring that Diallo went to the police to make her accusations.
He believes he was under surveillance in the days before the encounter, and had removed encryption from his phones because of technical problems, the interview said.
A New York lawyer representing Diallo in an ongoing civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn dismissed as "utter nonsense" that there had been any political intrigue.
Opinion polls show that Hollande is expected to win the election run-off against Sarkozy on May 6.
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.
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 a "transgression" in his bid to secure the votes of the 6.5 million people who plumped for far-right leader Marine Le Pen in last Sunday's first round.
Sarkozy has reached out to the former political pariah Le Pen, insisting that her values are not incompatible with France's republican tradition, and vowing to secure Europe's borders and fight multiculturalism.
But Hollande is also scrambling to recruit voters who backed the anti-immigrant, anti-European National Front leader.
Le Pen did well in the first round among white working-class voters who might once have backed the left, and on Friday the Socialist candidate made a concession to their concerns.
"In the period of crisis we are going through, limiting economic immigration is necessary and essential," he said. "I also want to fight illegal immigration on the economic front."
Sarkozy complained at a rally on Friday in the central city of Dijon 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.
She is not expected to endorse either of the remaining candidates 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.