Sarkozy unsettled by the rise of IMF boss Strauss-Kahn

 

THE PURPOSE of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s visit to Berlin yesterday may have been to lobby German leaders over the bailout for Greece, but peddlers in Parisian political intrigue will have kept a close eye on events in the German capital.

It’s a sign of just how credible a threat the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is believed to pose to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances of re-election in 2012 that a rumour has circulated in Paris for months that Sarkozy’s reluctance to involve the IMF in the Greek rescue was driven partly out of fear of bolstering the profile of his heavyweight rival. The theory has a far-fetched ring to it, but the president has every reason to be unsettled by Strauss-Kahn’s rise.

As Sarkozy’s popularity has sunk to new depths in recent months, that of the Socialist former finance minister has been climbing steadily. Polls consistently place him as one of the most popular French politicians and the candidate most likely to defeat Sarkozy in the 2012 election.

An Ifop poll in February found that in a head-to-head, a remarkable 61 per cent of people would back Strauss-Kahn against just 36 per cent for Sarkozy.

How Sarkozy must regret sending Strauss-Kahn to Washington. When the appointment was made in 2007, it was widely seen as a clever manoeuvre that co-opted a left-wing figurehead while dispatching one of the president’s biggest rivals safely across the Atlantic. But the global economic crisis has changed all that.

As Sarkozy struggles to ease the French deficit and force through unpopular reforms at home, the statesmanlike Strauss-Kahn travels the world as the voice of fiscal discipline. Pictures of Strauss-Kahn cajoling German politicians in Berlin filled yesterday’s news bulletins.

All the while, the head of the IMF keeps France guessing about his intentions. As speculation persists over whether the 61-year-old Strauss-Kahn – or DSK as he is widely known – will declare himself for 2012, his strategy has been to strike an ambiguous posture while keeping his name firmly in play. Although constrained by his job from involving himself in French politics, he returns to Paris regularly and his supporters in the Socialist Party (PS) take every opportunity to talk up his role as the “natural candidate” of the left.

Several loyal Strauss-Kahniens called on him to declare this week, and his name is sure to remain in the headlines when two biographies are published in the coming weeks.

DSK himself went furthest in a radio interview in February, when asked if he would consider leaving the IMF to make a presidential bid. He intended to see out his five-year term, he replied, which would take him six months beyond the French election. “But if you are asking whether, in certain circumstances, I could reconsider that question, the answer is yes,” he added.

Those “certain circumstances” mean the certainty of securing the Socialist nomination, which will be decided by a primary vote among registered members of the public next year. But Strauss-Kahn’s decision looks much more awkward now than it did two months ago.

Since the Socialists’ sweeping victory in regional elections in March, party leader Martine Aubry has emerged as a credible candidate herself. Her poll numbers are now as high as DSK’s (an Ifop poll last week gave them both 50 per cent among Socialist voters), while recent foreign trips to India and China and the launch this week of a major economic strategy document have enhanced her leadership profile. Moreover, polls show the market-friendly DSK is less popular among Socialist party members than he is in the country at large.

DSK’s dilemma is this: by delaying his declaration, he allows Aubry – not to mention other potential nominees such as the defeated candidate in the 2007 election, Ségolène Royal, and former party leader François Hollande – gain momentum. But for DSK to declare now would risk causing problems within the IMF and unleashing another bout of internecine warfare within the PS by pitching himself against Aubry, despite having publicly supported her leadership for the past year (a long-standing rumour has it that DSK, Aubry and another grandee, Laurent Fabius, have agreed that only one of them should run for the nomination, in order to keep Royal out).

Strauss-Kahn must also wonder how much of his public support is durable and how much of it would evaporate once he relinquished the aura of distant international statesman and returned to the trench warfare of domestic politics. After all, Jacques Chirac is more popular since vanishing into retirement than he ever was when he was the centre of France’s attention.