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Would French vote for Strauss-Kahn?

Opinion polls give the IMF boss a massive lead over Nicolas Sarkozy

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been absent from French politics since he took up the post of head of the International Monetary Fund in 2007. It appears to have stood him well in terms of his standing with French public.

His approval ratings have risen consistently through simply not being in the spotlight. A recent poll said he would beat Nicolas Sarkozy by margin of 59 per cent to 41per cent, were he to stand for election in 2012.

“All these figures flatter my ego, but they just add weight to the political law: the less you say, the more they love you,” he told Le Point.

Strauss-Kahn was one of the big hitters of the Socialist Party. He was defeated by Ségolène Royal in his bid to run as presidential candidate in 2006, but helped put together her programme. Following her defeat he blamed party chairman (and Royal’s then partner) François Hollande for the failure.

He stood down from the party’s national office and was appointed head of the International Monetary Fund in 2007, promising to stay the course until the end of his mandate in November 2012 (six months after the French presidential elections).

At the time of Royal’s defeat, DSK, as he is known, complained that her election as candidate, just six months before the presidential ballot, should have been done a year earlier. These words may be coming back to haunt him.

He has been tight-lipped about whether he will quit his post slightly early to stand as a presidential candidate, but the clock is ticking.
The triple declarations of Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry that she would like to stand, that she will not run against DSK in any leadership competition and that she intends to decide by the end of this year, have set a deadline.

The pair were reported to have met in September for very private, informal discussions on the matter but Aubry’s end-of-year announcement, should she decide not to run, could be the starting gun on a DSK presidential campaign.

Among his strengths listed by the French are his international prestige and connections, and his handling of the financial crisis, in which he appeared to have played a key role in shepherding the leaders of the G20 nations to respond in a collective manner.

Leading the IMF as the world financial system almost completely shut down, Dominique Strauss-Kahn came to prominence like no other IMF boss. Certainly as the financial crisis works its way through to government budgets, Strauss-Kahn, as head of the IMF, has begun to look like the boss of several prime ministers and presidents, including his rival Nicolas Sarkozy, as countries are asked to put their economic houses in order.

DSK, 61, also scores well for his experience in French politics. His economic skills however are a double-edged sword. Within the Socialist Party, his involvement with the IMF, which is perceived as a right-wing, liberal institution, is likely to alienate support from the left.

How will socialist supporters, who criticised “Sarkozy the American” for his Anglo-Saxon, liberal tendencies, cope with a man who has spent the past few years living in Washington and who lists the fictional US President of the TV series The West Wing Jed Bartlet (a professor of economics by trade) among his idols? Unlike Sarkozy, DSK speaks fluent English and could go head-to-head in terms of air miles and dinners with the rich and powerful.

Any talk of modernising the Socialists of France to a more liberal economic agenda conjures up a name all-too familiar to Britons: Tony Blair. DSK was initially a fan. “He gave new momentum to the British left wing, but when I realised that his ever-present smile was a grimace, I could no longer see anything but the spin,” he says of Blair.

The general public has yet to trust anyone with a “financier” or “economist” label attached to them, as budget cuts and tax rises hit their wallets in order to pay for the economic mistakes of past years. How much of this sticks to DSK will only really be seen when he comes under electoral scrutiny.

Unlike one other possible presidential rival, former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, DSK has faced a French electorate, winning and losing seats as an MP.

One point that may not be addressed on any campaign, and that highlights the difference between the media coverage of French politicians’ lives and their UK counterparts’, is DSK and women.

The media spotlight fell on him in October 2008 over revelations of his extra-marital affair with office intern Piroska Nagy, at the same time as the world financial crisis struck. However, contrition and apologies do seem to have let the matter fall slowly into history. His wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, stuck by him.

Even a book released in May this year, DSK: Les secrets d'un présidentiable, written by the anonymous “Cassandre”, which promised an exposé to ruin his chances in 2012, hasn’t. If there is mud to be thrown or much to be raked, expect it to come soon after any announcement that he will run.

But even if it does, it may not grab the attention of press or public. Given that, during the last election, both Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy managed presidential campaigns as their marriages and partnerships broke down, and that François Mitterrand let his illegitimate daughter live in government accommodation while he was president without the press breathing a word, the personal life of DSK may never even be called into question.

If both Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn run, they will have one thing in common: they are both outsiders. It will be interesting to see how voters react to this, given that the president has been making great play of the question of national identity. Sarkozy’s father told him he would never get anywhere in France with a name like that. While he did manage to convert the electorate, he has never shaken his outsider image.

While the name Strauss-Kahn has the Germanic ring of north-east France, his Judaism, a subject rarely touched on, could be targetted by the French right, galvanised by the current government’s policies on wearing the burqa, deportations and national identity. That he is at the head of an international cartel of financiers, albeit the IMF, is meat and drink to right-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists and could make for some ugly electioneering.

His departure in 2007 from French politics and the senior reaches of the Socialist Party could not have come at a better time, because the infighting began from the moment of Ségolène Royal’s defeat in May of that year and continued for another two years, until Royal and Aubry supporters finally, grudgingly, buried the hatchet in May 2009.

Public opinion has come to forgive the Socialists. An Ifop poll in August revealed that 51 per cent felt the party was more in tune with their worries than was the governing UMP.

For two years the public had held the Socialists in disdain; they were seen as leaderless, purposeless and incapable of any message other than “We don’t like Sarkozy”. Not only do recent polls place two Socialists (DSK and Aubry) ahead of President Sarkozy, the underlying message from the public (65 per cent do not even want him to run again, according to an Ifop poll) appears to be: “We don’t like Sarkozy”.

Biography

1949 Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a rich suburb of Paris (where Nicolas Sarkozy later began his political career as mayor). His parents, French Jews Gilbert Strauss-Kahn and Jacqueline Fellus, moved to Morocco in 1955, but returned to Europe in 1960.

1963 He toured Corsica on a mobilette.

1977 Gained a PhD in economic from the Institut de Statistiques de l'Université de Paris and has taught the subject at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris.

1991-93 Minister of industry and international trade under Lionel Jospin, who was a witness to DSK’s marriage to journalist Anne Sinclair.

1997-99 Minister of economy, finance and industry.

2002 After the election of Jacques Chirac and the rise of the UMP to power, he no longer held any executive positions.

2006 Put himself forward against Ségolène Royal and Laurent Fabius for the leadership of the Socialist Party. He was soundly beaten.

2007 Became head of the IMF.

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