Dispatch

Sarkozy's Favorite Sex Scandal

The political suicide of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is great news for France's embattled and unpopular president.

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.

In a race against the center-left Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy was always going to tack further to the right to mobilize his base. He had been staking out that ground in the debate around immigration and ethnic integration, especially last year. More recently, conservative members of the center-right government have taken to rhetorically lambasting l'assistinat -- individuals who seek social help from the state and its various safety nets.

Sarkozy actually weakened that net last year, when he raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. The campaign to push through legislation that required most French people to work two additional years came at a particularly inauspicious moment, amid a flurry of revelations involving apparent conflicts of interest by members of the government. These ranged from the anecdotal (a government official who expensed more than $10,000 in cigars to taxpayers), to the epic (allegations that the minister of budget and his wife were intertwined with the nation's wealthiest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, and also one of its biggest tax evaders).

In better economic times, the French -- who have some of the longest life expectancies in the world -- might have readily accepted the two additional years, especially if they were given something in exchange; but the hike in the retirement age came amid fairly desperate times. It was little surprise that the reform solidified a drop in Sarkozy's approval ratings. He hasn't recovered since.

On another level, part of Sarkozy's problem with French voters is more of a personality issue: They don't like the way that he exercises the role of the presidency. The French are largely accustomed to detached, judicious, and reserved presidents. Sarkozy is strikingly hands-on, not to mention showy, frenetic, and occasionally even neurotic. But such complaints about the current president would seem remarkably petty if it turned out that Socialists nearly nominated a serial sexual assaulter.

So, who's Sarkozy's most likely competition? Politically, Sarkozy can now expect to face a far more traditional Socialist candidate and, perhaps, a less unified opposition party. The coalescing of what has recently been a remarkably splintered party around Strauss-Kahn is definitely over. It is hard to imagine that the Socialists can transfer the growing consensus around Strauss-Kahn to another candidate without some divisive late-in-the-game infighting. (The emergency meetings of party leaders and Socialist "elephants" -- i.e., heavyweights -- in the run-up to the July 13 candidate-filing deadline are already beginning.)

Strauss-Kahn's political suicide offers tremendous opportunities for former Socialist Party leader François Hollande, who began his presidential efforts at the bottom of the polls last year. Hollande, a former economic adviser to Mitterrand, was the head of the Socialist Party for nine up-and-down years, and he remains a parliamentarian for a portion of the same geographic department that was the political base of former President Jacques Chirac. Like Strauss-Kahn, Hollande has branded himself as a responsible leftist, rather than as an idealist, an ideologue, or a populist, as some others on the left have done. Unfortunately for him, Hollande is not telegenic; France's popular Spitting Image-style satirical political puppet show used to portray him as a marshmallow, apparently due to his (former) portliness and his lack of political substance. But Hollande can be a shrewd tactician. For one, he has long argued that Strauss-Kahn, whom he has known for decades, would decide not to run, leaving him in a position to fill much of that space. The pragmatic, hardworking, and down-to-earth Hollande has risen steadily in popularity and credibility, according to an array of surveys this year, with the most recent polls suggesting that voters have started to see him as a real alternative to Strauss-Kahn, despite his absence of international economic experience.

But there are many other candidates. Strauss-Kahn's oversized figure hid at least a half dozen other potential candidates who said or suggested that they would not run if he did. Now, many of them -- including former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and current Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry -- are reassessing their chances.

The most natural candidate, at least according to French political traditions, is Aubry. (Mitterrand was his party's leader when he was elected president.) Aubry, the daughter of former European Union Commission President Jacques Delors, is best known for enacting France's left-friendly 35-hour workweek, but she has projected ambivalence about a presidential run. Look for Fabius -- once a young, bourgeois Socialist prime minister with gravitas but not Aubry's people's touch -- to also enter the race.

And then there's Ségolène Royal, who's already said that she is running. Although she lost decisively to Sarkozy in the 2007 race, she did win more votes as a Socialist candidate than any other in the party's history. But so far, she has failed to generate anywhere near the excitement that she did during the previous nominating process. (Hollande and Royal -- in a decidedly French touch -- have had four children together, although they are no longer a couple. Hollande intended to run for the party's nomination in 2006, but backed out when it became clear that Royal was going to run -- and that she was far more popular.)

A slew of other potential candidates include the popular and generally pragmatic mayors of Paris and Lyon, as well as several members of a younger generation of aspiring modernizers. None have conveyed a convincing vision, framework, or plan for the French in a way that Hollande has meticulously attempted. (To be fair, Strauss-Kahn didn't do this either, but the heft of his IMF job and his economic experience seemed to weigh in his favor.)

The charges against Strauss-Kahn are almost certain to further bolster the arguments of popular far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who has been polling remarkably well for a third-party candidate in France since she took over the head of the National Front early this year. Le Pen's support is directly linked to her incisive critiques of France's often out-of-touch political elite and the sense of outlandish entitlement that some of its prominent members often betray. Strauss-Kahn has given her a gift of ammunition. Even before his arrest, some polls had her coming in first or second place, with Sarkozy not even making it into a runoff. While Strauss-Kahn's voters are unlikely to shift to the far-right, the general sense that the nation's mainstream politicians aren't just corrupt and out of touch -- but that they might be actual criminals -- can only re-enforce her arguments with substantial segments of the electorate.

If Le Pen comes in first or second place in the first round of the presidential election next spring, she will continue into the runoff -- as her father, Jean-Marie, did in 2002. Their National Front party is still in no position to win a face-to-face race, so her victory would be Pyrrhic, essentially handing the presidency to whomever she faces off with. The question is this: Would it be a Socialist or Sarkozy?

Also, while extremely unlikely, it isn't impossible that Strauss-Kahn could recover. His lawyers have declared that he has an "ironclad alibi" -- that he was lunching with his daughter in a restaurant while the assault was supposed to have taken place. If this is true, it shouldn't be difficult to verify. And, if exonerated, he could register for his party's nomination in June and seek to fully clear his name by the time the Socialists choose their standard-bearer in October. Although this appears nearly impossible now, the tectonics of French politics have just proved how fast things can change.

A spokesman for the government has emphasized discretion in regard to the charges against Strauss-Kahn, and respect for the presumption of innocence. Sarkozy supporters have even noted the possibility that Strauss-Kahn might -- miraculously, it now seems -- be able to turn things around, if the case against him quickly falls apart.

But more likely, despite the generosity of their words, they all know that the contrast with Strauss-Kahn may be the best springboard for Sarkozy. In contrast to the crimes alleged, it isn't hard to argue that Sarkozy might not be that bad after all.

PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images

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