The most unpredictable French presidential election in decades has taken another bizarre turn after Emmanuel Macron, the leading candidate who is married to his former high school teacher, was forced to deny a gay extramarital affair.
The centrist took the lead in the opinion polls two weeks ago after his conservative rival, Fançois Fillon, became embroiled in a scandal centring on alleged misuse of public funds to pay his wife for a job for which she allegedly did no work.
Macron unexpectedly turned up yesterday at a local Paris meeting of activists from his En Marche (On the Move) movement and laughed off the persistent rumours of a homosexual relationship with Radio France chief executive Mathieu Gallet.
"If you're told I lead a double life with Mr Gallet it's because my hologram has escaped," he said, in a reference to a rival candidate making an appearance as a hologram at a rally last weekend.
A spokesman for the former investment banker - whose wife and former French school teacher Brigitte Trogneux is 24 years his senior - said the comments were "a clear denial of the rumours about his private life".
The couple have regularly featured in France's celebrity and lifestyle magazines since the telegenic Macron, 39, resigned as Economy Minister from the Socialist Government last northern summer to launch his bid for the presidency.
Macron has previously dismissed claims he is gay, but his latest comments may have been sparked by a report in the Russian Government-controlled news site Sputnik in which a French MP from Fillon's Les Républicains party said he was backed a "gay lobby".
Fillon, who until the financial scandal broke two weeks ago was the leading presidential candidate, was today seeking to get his campaign back on track after publicly denying the accusations and saying he was the victim of a smear campaign.
But his counter-offensive appears to have failed to win back public support, with the latest opinion poll confirming earlier surveys that showed around two-thirds of French people want him to stand aside and let another conservative candidate run.
Fillon served as Prime Minister from 2007 until 2012 under then President Nicolas Sarkozy, who today was ordered to stand trial over the allegedly fraudulent financing of his failed 2012 re-election campaign.
Opinion polls put Macron ahead of Fillon in the first round of the election in April, but only by a few percentage points, and behind Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National.
Only the top two candidates go through to a second round on May 7. Polls show that Macron would beat Le Pen with about two-thirds of the vote and that Fillon would win by a smaller, but still comfortable margin.
But many believe that all bets are off after the Brexit referendum and the presidential victory of Donald Trump in the US.