French voters are often paradoxical and inconsistent -- and so is Strauss-Kahn. On the one hand he's a member of the pro-labor Socialist Party (PS); on the other he is the perfect example of the so-called "caviar left," a species of wealthy, distinguished liberals who seem to exist in this form in France.
Indeed, the country's political left is extremely eclectic, ranging from philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy to former Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer. Born in the richest suburb of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Nicolas Sarkozy used to be mayor, Strauss-Kahn's political ascendancy began when he was elected mayor of Sarcelles, a satellite town to the north of the capital which consists largely of low-cost, high-rise apartment blocks. It's the epitome of suburban gloom.
Recently, when he flew in from Washington to attend the wedding of one of his four daughters, Strauss-Kahn also paid a high-profile visit to Sarcelles -- surrounded by camera teams. Asked whether it was a shrewd electioneering move, he replied without hesitation that it was merely an "old allegiance."
A Finance Minister of Un-Gallic Austerity
As industry minister, in the '90s, Dominique Strauss-Kahn oversaw the privatization of companies like oil giant Elf Aquitaine, which did as little to dent his popularity as his later appointment as finance minister, a role he fulfilled with remarkably un-Gallic austerity.
Now, as then, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is carried by his charisma. His skill and experience in financial matters are less important to the public. Even the rockier aspects of his past have hardly diminished his reputation: Strauss-Kahn is currently on his third marriage, and he was forced to resign from his ministerial post after investigations into alleged corruption. His political comeback started even before he was cleared.
His growing popularity, though, has been matched by an increase in attacks from political opponents. Although Strauss-Kahn refuses to say whether he'll run, the electioneering has started without him. After his wife, the well-known TV journalist Anne Sinclair, publicly announced her opposition to her husband serving a second term as IMF boss, Marine Le Pen and others have accused him of bringing forward the election campaign "in a grotesque manner."
One parliamentarian from the governing center-right UMP labeled Strauss-Kahn a "bobo," or bourgeois bohemian. The old Socialist had no right to seek "to speak for all Frenchmen" -- as president -- because he'd lived abroad, said the same politician, and had no connections to rural France. Strauss-Kahn is quite cosmopolitan, having grown up in Morocco and Monaco, but his party colleagues immediately cried foul, suspecting anti-Semitic motives behind the criticism.
Strauss-Kahn is far from a prototypical Frenchman. He speaks fluent English with only a slight accent, as well as German and Spanish. He can express himself in Arab. His press conferences in Washington are held in English, a fact often resented in France. Ironically it was Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself who expressed doubts a few years back about whether France was ready for a Jewish president.
"That's utter nonsense," says Gerard Collomb, the man who has been the mayor of Lyon, France's third-largest city, for the past decade. Sitting in an office in the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris, 63-year-old Collomb describes himself as a "passionate socialist." In a recently-published book he has all but begged Strauss-Kahn to seize the reins of power, both in his party and the country as a whole.
"Dominique is the only one who stands a chance against Marine Le Pen. We need him," Collomb says. The French are a deeply uneasy people, he says, and they need someone who commands international respect. Not a showy, "bling-bling" guy like Sarkozy -- or an unspectacular party veteran like François Hollande, the former first secretary of the Socialist Party, who has also announced his intention to run.
'The Times have Changed'
Another possible rival for Strauss-Kahn will be Socialist Party boss Martine Aubry, whose father, former European Commission President Jacques Delors, is something of a role model for Strauss-Kahn himself. But Collomb disregards Aubry, too. It's not enough to simply give inflammatory speeches about lost values, he says -- "Times have changed." Who better to guide the French through the dangers of a globalized world than the head of the IMF?
Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, another Neuilly-born Socialist, agrees. The cafes around the Socialist Party headquarters on the Rue de Solferino, where Cambadelis has his offices, have names like "Aux ministeres" ("Ministry bar"). Cambadelis is Strauss-Kahn's impresario, covering his back in Paris' political center. "The Socialists are traumatized," he says.
In 2002, then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- a Socialist stalwart -- dropped out of a presidential election after Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, beat him in the first round of polling. (It was largely considered a protest vote.) Opinion pollsters currently predict Ms. Le Pen would snatch more than 20 percent of the vote were the election held today.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is now being advised by the same agency that counseled Nicolas Sarkozy in the last election. In February, he published a book about his work at the IMF. Two authorized biographies are set to follow. The absentee, in France, is very much present.