Sex charges throw French politics in turmoil

By Catherine Field

International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Municipal Court. Photo / AP
International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Municipal Court. Photo / AP

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has hit French politics like a thunderbolt, rewriting the script for next year's presidential elections.

Strauss-Kahn's career seems doomed after the head of the International Monetary Fund, a hot favourite for the French presidency, was arrested in New York and accused of trying to rape a hotel maid.

In France's mainstream parties, the official word is to be sober and dignified and emphasise presumption of innocence.

According to the newspaper Journal du Dimanche, the Government has gagged ministers from making any comment.

Behind the scenes, though, there is turmoil, dismay or glee as politicians survey the aftermath of an earthquake and second-string players suddenly sense they have a chance for the top job after all.

Strauss-Kahn, known universally as DSK, had been expected to announce his run as candidate for the Socialist Party after a Group of Eight summit in Deauville next week.

Until now, every single poll had given the silver-haired former finance minister a lead over any figure - the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, far-right leader Marine Le Pen or centrists Jean-Louis Borloo and Francois Bayrou.

But without some dramatic turnaround, his career is on the skids. France is deeply tolerant of sexual scandal, but not of the coercive kind.

"I expect him to resign swiftly from the IMF. I don't see how he could be a candidate for the elections," said political analyst Gerard Grunberg.

"It's a stunning blow, an enormous event for French political life."

Stephane Rozes of the political consultancy Cap Conseil agreed.

"Even if, taking the best-case scenario, the accusations are totally wrong or it turns out to be a plot, this scandal will still be a shadow between DSK and the French public."

Many in the Socialist Party had seen DSK as the one man who could restore the party to the presidency after what will have been 17 years in the wilderness.

Already deeply divided by its crushing loss in the 2007 elections,the party could rip itself apart in the primary vote for their candidate this October.

The party urged its members to show "unity" after the news from New York broke.

Grunberg expected a "left-right clash" between Martine Aubry, a darling of the left, and moderate Francois Hollande.

For Sarkozy, though, the wind of fortune has suddenly blown strong and hard in his favour.

Right now, he has opinion-poll support of less than a third.

But even at this abysmal level, his chances next May would be good if DSK is not in the picture.

The scenario is this: a lacklustre Socialist candidate would be routed by Le Pen in the first round. That would leave the mainstream public to rally behind Sarkozy against the far right in the runoff vote, emulating Jacques Chirac's victory against Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, in 2002.

Strauss-Kahn, 62, was escorted off a flight heading for Paris and charged after he allegedly assaulted a chambermaid in his suite in the Sofitel hotel in New York. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail.

DSK's wife, Anne Sinclair, a popular former TV journalist, said she did not believe "for one second" the accusations against her husband.

A handful of his supporters have claimed he is the victim of a set-up while Le Pen hinted darkly that the opposite might happen - "that tongues may now be free to speak" about his sexual proclivities. She said that journalists and politicians in Paris had been talking for months about the "somewhat obsessive relationship" that Strauss-Kahn has with women.

Until the weekend's dramatic turn, life seemed to have been offered to Strauss-Kahn on a silver platter. Intelligent, a gifted speaker in three languages, educated at elite schools, the former economics professor earned his spurs as Finance Minister from 1997 to 1999. He helped to create the euro single currency and oversee a flurry of privatisations in the face of stiff resistance from his party's rank and file.

- NZ Herald

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