President Nicolas Sarkozy is so sensitive about his height that his aides "cast" small women to appear beside him in public, according to Belgian television.

A video clip, in which a tiny Norman woman says that she was selected to stand behind Mr Sarkozy during an "impromptu" factory visit last week, has become an overnight sensation on the French-language internet.

Such is the "buzz" (in French le buzz) surrounding the clip that the Elysee Palace felt obliged to put out an angry denial.

Any suggestion that members of the public were vetted for size was "totally far-fetched and grotesque", the Elysee said.

President Sarkozy is five feet five inches tall.

RTBF, the main French-language television channel in Belgium, followed Sarkozy on a visit to a factory in the Orne in lower Normandy last week to prepare a report on the lengths taken by the French government to shape its public image.

This follows a ministerial visit to a supermarket last month in which "housewives" who flocked admiringly around the Education Minister, Luc Chatel, turned out to be employees of the company.

Before the President arrived at the Faurecia car parts factory in the Orne last Thursday, female workers were selected to appear behind Mr Sarkozy according to their height, RTBF claimed.

After showing the President's speech, in which he appears to be the tallest person in the crowd, RTBF interviewed an unnamed factory worker.

"I'm told you were picked because of your size," says the reporter, Jean-Philippe Schaller.

"Yes," says the woman.

"No one must be taller than the President," Schaller says.

"That's right," says the woman.

Local trades union officials have since told the news website Rue 89 that the height of workers allowed to stand close to the President had been part of advance negotiations between the factory and the Elysee. The Faurecia company has declined to comment.

Schaller said that his report had been intended to show "the lengths that are taken to control the President's public appearances, given the controversy surrounding the subject".

Ever since a presidential visit to another part of Normandy in January, in which hostile demonstrators could be heard chanting in the background, the Elysee and the wider French government have been taking pains to manage their public image.

But despite their best efforts, more trouble looms.

A full-length movie on France's favourite cartoon schoolboy is to appear later this month. Its title is Le Petit Nicolas.