Election season is heating up in France

How will the downgraded credit rating and DSK’s fall from grace affect Sarkozy’s electoral prospects?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer)
PARIS – Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade France’s credit rating just five months after the credit analysis bureau did the same to the United States has thrown France’s presidential election campaign into disarray and brought the race into international headlines.
The current S&P decision is harming incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy's chances of re-election, despite the earlier improvement in his position, following Dominique Strauss-Kahn's difficulties. But the current S&P decision could spell trouble for incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, and is certain to bring the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn back to the headlines.
Strauss-Kahn’s thunderbolt fall from grace was the most gripping story in French politics in 2011 by far. He was the most popular male politician in France, despite living in the USA. (Simone Weil, the distinguished former president of the European Parliament was more popular, but she is not running for office, perhaps understandably – she’s 84.)
DSK was so popular among the French Left that many expected him to win a resounding victory in the Socialist primaries in the race to become their candidate.
France, like most of the Western world, is in dire financial straits, and undergoing a period of “austerité.” It was argued by many that this professor of economics, former finance minister and successful IMF managing director was the Frenchman with the best credentials to steer her through them.
Now, even though criminal proceedings against him are over in New York, his chances of ever becoming French president are as great as The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s. But does he have any political future at all? And what does his recent debacle mean for Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election prospects?
AT THE time of his indictment, many French men sympathized with Strauss-Kahn. Lovers of conspiracy theories claimed and continue to believe that DSK’s political enemies set him up. Others were angered by the barbaric “perp walk” forced on him at the beginning, in front of the world’s media.
They, too, felt humiliated by the humiliation of their own IMF boss, especially when meted out by Americans, and blamed them, rather than him.
The French name for the IMF is FMI (Fonds Monétaire International.) Macho males joked that DSK thought that FMI stood for “Femmes de Ménage Incluse” (chamber maids included). He has since returned to the IMF with his wife, apologized and was received with great applause.
Most folk, however, were saddened or outraged by the whole sordid affair. Former Communist leader Marie-George Buffet has called his release from charges “bad news for women.”
His political friends, however, rushed to his defense. Madame Édith Cresson, once prime minister, even claimed that the allegations made against him were totally out of character for DSK, although a French journalist, Tristane Banon, has complained to the police about his conduct toward her, and compared him to a “rutting chimpanzee.”
On his return from New York to France this summer, strange as it seems to advocates of women’s rights and to we more puritan Anglo-Saxons, many Socialists still supported him. The French are more easy-going about what some see as private peccadilloes.
It may be that France’s views have hardened towards alpha males taking advantage of women as a result of DSK’s exposure. But in the summer some French Socialists were still calling for DSK to have a role in French politics. Some even suggested that he would be a suitable future finance minister.
Others, however, recoiled at his lavish lifestyle and his wife’s wealth: elegantly furnished apartments in five cities, $600 dinner with truffles at Madonna’s favourite New York restaurant, $100 steaks delivered to his door during investigations of rape, $3,000 per night suite in the Sofitel (service included.)
Grand gourmet conspicuous consumption sticks in their throats. Former Socialist premier Michel Rocard stated DSK has a mental problem, in not being able to control his impulses. And the civil proceedings in New York continued to embarrass him.
Today, DSK has no chance of ever achieving high political office, barring a miracle. He is too discredited, as a result of yet further allegations regarding his extra-curricular activities.
Where does all this leave Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances for re-election? With consummate sagacity, Sarkozy refused to condemn DSK publicly. After all, he backed DSK for the IMF post. Monsieur Sarkozy, instead, stayed above the fray. As befits a president.
His success in leading NATO’s ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has enhanced his international reputation. His much-loved wife, Carla Bruni, delivered their first child, and this enhanced his status as a family man (especially compared to DSK.) As for the economy, he is prudently raising taxes on the rich, thereby winning support from other quarters, and is making cuts, to reduce the national deficit.
These moves were originally welcomed. Indeed, this summer the president’s approval ratings surged, from an all-time low, and the Left was thrown into disarray by its prodigal son Dominique’s débâcle. How the mighty have fallen, and the fallen risen.
However, since October, when François Hollande became the official Socialist presidential candidate, Sarkozy has trailed in opinion polls, in some by a considerable margin. France’s credit downgrading is doing Sarkozy more harm. Nonetheless, there is no more skilled political operator in France than the current president, and he has previously shown great skill in wooing support, when necessary. The race for the 2012 presidency is wide open.
The writer is an international lawyer and a frequent commentator on French affairs.