In France, a rumor of infidelity has morphed into charges of international conspiracy.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, the former model and singer now known as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, have denied a report that they have been unfaithful to each other.
But the president was outraged that the international media picked up the rumor. Now, what was a non-event in France has turned into a national saga.
A rumor that Bruni-Sarkozy was having an affair with Benjamin Biolay, a French pop star six years her junior, surfaced in March on Twitter. The president, the tweet continued, was seeking comfort in the arms of Chantal Jouanno, his attractive ecology minister.
That rumor made a brief appearance on an online blog of a French Sunday newspaper, but it soon disappeared. Because of strict privacy laws, it was never published in France.
But although there was no evidence to support the story, it made headlines elsewhere around Europe — especially Britain, where the tabloids had a field day. One impertinent British journalist managed to aggravate Sarkozy by asking about it when the French president visited London.
A disgusted-looking Sarkozy told the reporter that he must have no idea what a French president does, adding that he had no time for such an "idiotic" question.
It could have all ended there. But to his critics' delight, Sarkozy seems to have become a little paranoid. French political journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet says that Sarkozy's ratings and self-esteem are at an all-time low after his party was wiped out in regional elections in March. As a result, she says, he is over-sensitive.
"Sarkozy in this instance has decided that it was outrageous and unbearable for him to have rumors about his own personal life with his wife," Moutet says.
Last week, one of Sarkozy's top advisers, Pierre Charon, warned there would be a "campaign of terror" against those who started the rumors. Charon spoke about an organized plot meant to destabilize the president and his wife. Even Anglo-Saxon financiers were not above suspicion, he said. After all, Sarkozy was trying to regulate international markets. Meanwhile, the two journalists at the Sunday newspaper were fired.
Now, of course, the French media can talk of nothing else, as pundits discuss topics such as freedom of expression and whether the French president has come unhinged. Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, with the news magazine Le Pont, says the entire issue would have completely died out if the president and his supporters had not mismanaged it so badly.
"Most people didn't even know about the rumors. But now it has been blown all out of proportion, and frankly it smacks of panic and paranoia," she says.
The president's cool-headed wife went on live radio to counter criticism that her husband had become "paranoid" and that the rumors of infidelity were part of an international conspiracy.
Bruni-Sarkozy said the rumors were disagreeable, but said they are completely "insignificant" to her and her husband. Bruni-Sarkozy denied there was any investigation into it, saying that would be "ridiculous."
Her level-headed comments held for a couple hours — until the head of the French domestic intelligence agency confirmed that he had indeed been assigned to identify the source of the rumors.
Now it's the French media who are having a field day. One radio anchorman played Bruni-Sarkozy's hit, "Someone Told Me," telling listeners there was new meaning to the lyrics. And the scandal has led to yet more speculation — that Sarkozy may have just lost the 2012 presidential election.