PARIS (Reuters) - Former French prime minister Francois Fillon accused President Francois Hollande's chief of staff of lying on Sunday after a media report accused Fillon of asking him to accelerate a legal case against his rival Nicolas Sarkozy.
Newspaper Le Monde said that Fillon had asked Jean-Pierre Jouyet in June to speed up legal cases involving Sarkozy to undermine his political comeback, including one linked to fines over the funding of the former president's 2012 campaign.
Fillon, Jouyet and a third participant at the June lunch had all previously denied the allegation, which could re-open in-fighting within the main UMP opposition weeks before elections to appoint a new leader, which Sarkozy is expected to win.
In an interview early on Sunday, Fillon had told the Journal du Dimanche he would file a legal complaint against Le Monde for defamation and said he was the victim of a conspiracy.
But having initially said on Thursday the lunch had never touched on the legal cases, Jouyet on Sunday backtracked after Le Monde's reporters maintained their version of events and said they had recordings to prove it, and opposition heavyweights rallied around Fillon calling on Jouyet to explain himself.
In a statement Jouyet said he had after all spoken to Fillon about the legal cases, including the fines. He stopped short of saying Fillon had asked him to interfere in legal proceedings.
"I explained to my interlocutors that the president could do nothing about this process given it was being dealt with by the justice system," Jouyet said in the statement.
Speaking on TF1's Sunday evening news, Fillon said he was outraged and angered by the comments and denied categorically that they had spoken about the fines.
"If Mr Jouyet said that, it's a lie. It would be extremely serious, it would be a national scandal," Fillion said.
"It would mean that at the summit of the state there are people trying to destabilize a member of the opposition, eliminate a possible candidate for the (2017) presidential election, divide the main opposition party and with one bullet shoot Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon."
Hollande's office declined to comment.
In its report Le Monde said Jouyet had told their reporters of his meeting with Fillon during which the case surrounding Sarkozy's 2012 campaign financing was brought up.
"If you don't hit him quickly, you'll let him come back, so act," Fillon is quoted by Jouyet as saying in Le Monde.
Fillon has said the lunch had been at the behest of Jouyet, a former minister under Fillon and a close friend of Hollande.
The UMP party, now the main opposition, has been rocked by crises since Sarkozy lost his 2012 re-election bid to Hollande, first over its leadership and most recently over alleged fraud in the financing of the campaign.
Fillon, Sarkozy and another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, are expected to slug it out for the UMP presidential candidacy in 2017. Some Sarkozy backers have said that his re-emergence has not created the buzz they had expected.
Since leaving power, Sarkozy has faced a welter of legal cases ranging from influence-peddling to illegal party funding. He denies all wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically-motivated plot to undermine his comeback.
Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Dominic Evans