France's Sarkozy criticized for 'pedophile' quip

He was trying to make a point — and, perhaps, being jocular — but French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have gotten himself in hot water by slinging around the word "pedophile" in a supposedly off-the-record encounter with journalists.

Opponents pounced, saying Sarkozy was unpresidential — and not for the first time. It underscored how the episode could haunt him if he runs for re-election in 2012.

Speaking outside a NATO summit Friday, Sarkozy was asked about allegations of corruption in a 1990s arms deal — and whether he'd played a role.

He urged journalists to be careful about covering what he called baseless allegations.

According to a tape, Sarkozy illustrated his point by telling a journalist, "It would seem that you are a pedophile. ... Who told me? I am deeply convinced of it."

Later, when Sarkozy mentioned that dinner was waiting, a journalist said, "I hope we didn't ruin your appetite."

Replied the president: "Of course not. No hard feelings, pedophile." At that point, laughter can be heard on the tape.

It harkened back to a gaffe caught on videotape in 2008, when a loose-tongued Sarkozy, at a Paris trade fair, snapped an insult at a passer-by that — in a milder translation — meant "you total jerk."

Details of the briefing slipped out bit by bit, and late Tuesday the left-leaning Liberation newspaper published the recording on its Web site.

The presidential palace declined comment on the incident.

Not so Socialist Segolene Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race. She said French law bans public insults and said Sarkozy "should be punished" — just like any other person.

"A president needs to know how to keep his nerve, restrain his unjust anger and keep his cool," she said, according to the Web site of Radio France Internationale. "If he loses his cool to this point, perhaps it is because he has something to feel guilty about."

Author Alain Minc, a friend of Sarkozy's, told France-Info radio the comments from were "a joke," adding: "You journalists are all the same. You have the skins of little girls — pardon the expression."