Paris – With Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), facing sex crimes charges in Manhattan for an alleged assault on a hotel chambermaid on May 14, innumerable questions are surfacing about the notorious (and married) ladies' man. Plucked off an Air France flight just moments before it was about to depart, he is currently being held without bail. But whether the until-now powerful Strauss-Kahn is guilty as charged or the victim of a stunningly complex "honey trap" -- as some in France seem to believe -- one thing is clear: The 2012 French presidential campaign landscape has already seen a seismic shift.
Strauss-Kahn was widely expected to announce next month that he would seek the Socialist Party nomination for the presidential election next spring. The former finance minister seemed to much of the French electorate like the man of the hour -- someone who understood people's profound economic fears in an unfathomably complex and unstable world -- and could do something about it. During his tenure as IMF chief, he was widely praised for his experience, competence, and political savvy in stabilizing the precarious European economy.
On the tactical political front, Strauss-Kahn provided the Socialists with elusive appeal to crucial centrist and center-right French voters attracted to a candidate with unquestionable economic bona fides balanced with some sense of compassion for those who are struggling.
Many of those same voters are profoundly disillusioned with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Broad swaths of the French electorate are stressed out over the state of the economy, especially about declining buying power. Despite Sarkozy's 2007 oft-repeated campaign promises to bolster purchasing power and allow people to "work more to earn more," the public perception is that he has failed. Sarkozy's supporters argue that such promises were temporarily sacrificed by the necessity of responding to the global economic crisis. Though this crisis hit France more mildly than many of its neighbors, it is precisely at such a time that people most desire the restoration of their pocketbook power. Such fiscal concerns could easily tip the next presidential election to France's largest leftist party for the first time since François Mitterrand won re-election in 1988.
While the primary campaign hasn't formally begun yet, and while Strauss-Kahn's job at the IMF specifically prohibits him from discussing politics -- or clarifying whether he intended to run for the presidency -- polls have long projected that he would defeat any comers in his own party in an October primary. Moreover, early polls showed Strauss-Kahn crushing the unpopular incumbent Sarkozy, in some cases by margins of 20 percentage points or more.
The real question was whether Strauss-Kahn could handle the scrutiny that an intense political campaign would place on him and his private life. We appear to have our answer. Now, his all-but-certain political elimination less than two months before the Socialist nominating process begins doesn't just reshuffle France's electoral cards -- it tosses them out the window.
Sarkozy's approval ratings have hovered just above the gutter -- often below 30 percent for much of the last year despite numerous high-profile efforts to spark renewed electoral momentum. He has repeatedly hired and fired ministers to signal a change to the public -- only to face additional ministerial ineffectuality and allegations of conflict of interest by other members of the government. On the foreign-policy front, the current French government was taken aback by the people power movements that have shaken North Africa and the Arab world, leaving French policymakers to look reactive and out of touch.
Sarkozy's recent foreign-policy moves, such as leading the charge against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the French-assisted ouster of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, have only brought the smallest of returns for him. But his chances at reelection improved dramatically this past weekend.