PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief of staff chided French media on Tuesday in the latest sign of a growing rift between Sarkozy and journalists who have picked over the details of his very public love life.
France's media are traditionally less bold than their British or U.S. counterparts, especially when it comes covering politicians' romantic attachments.
But Sarkozy's divorce from his wife Cecilia last October, followed by his romance and marriage to model-turned-singer Carla Bruni have been splashed across the press and the paparazzi follow his every move.
His public displays of affection with Bruni have helped trigger a slump in Sarkozy's approval ratings which has taken the shine off his presidency nine months after he took office.
"I say solemnly: in the past few months we have experienced a disturbing and worrying development," Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant said in an interview with weekly magazine L'Express released ahead of publication in Thursday's edition.
"Many things are said without being checked. False things which can cause destruction are written in the press. This is very serious," Gueant said.
Sarkozy's lawyer announced last week he was taking legal action against the Web site of weekly Le Nouvel Observateur over an article that said Sarkozy sent Cecilia a text message just days before he married Bruni on Feb. 2 saying that if she came back to him he would call off the wedding.
"What was done is disgraceful. The lawsuit is an appeal to people's conscience," Gueant said, referring to that article.
But media rights group Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern at the type of lawsuit Sarkozy has filed -- under the criminal charge of "falsification and the use and procurement of falsified documents" rather than a civil lawsuit.
"This choice of procedure alarms us," the watchdog, known by its French acronym RSF, said in a statement, adding that the accused faced up to three years in prison if found guilty.
Sarkozy has clashed with the press before. At a New Year's news conference, his confrontational manner raised eyebrows.
Asked about his decision to put his private life on display during a holiday in Egypt and Jordan, Sarkozy said he presumed the reporter's news channel would not cover his next holiday.
Sarkozy says he is being transparent where some of his predecessors, such as Socialist Francois Mitterrand, had affairs that the media knew about but no one reported on.
But his talk of openness with the press seems at odds with barbed comments towards the media by him and his allies. Sarkozy protege and junior minister for human rights Rama Yade fired an opening salvo last week, reacting to the text message case.
"It's as if one were watching vultures that have smelled their prey and are racing towards it, hounding it, because I think it is a real manhunt," Yade told RTL radio, saying recent attacks by the press on Sarkozy were "shameful, abominable".
That prompted criticism from RSF.
"We hope she did not mean this," RSF said.