France's Damaged Left Socialists Struggle to Cope with Strauss-Kahn Fallout

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who returned to Paris on Sunday, is casting a long shadow over the presidential election campaign in France. Once considered a shoo-in for the Socialist candidacy, the disgraced former IMF head has become a handicap for his party.

AFP

By Romain Leick


Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man who has been declared politically dead, is keeping the living in suspense. Everyone has been talking about him and waiting for him -- as if the fate of the nation depended on his miraculous and yet uncanny resurrection.

Last week, in a surrealistic countdown, all of France seemed to be waiting with bated breath for the return of its fallen son. On Thursday, the starting shot was reported, as if to mark the beginning of a special kind of Tour de France: DSK, as Strauss-Kahn is widely known, and his loyal and tolerant wife Anne Sinclair had just left their house in Washington and booked their ticket home on Air France.

What would the returnee say? And in what role would he be returning? As a triumphant man who had escaped the clutches of the US justice system? Or as a humiliated man who was not acquitted and certainly was not declared innocent, and in fact has only himself to blame for his spectacular and ridiculous fall from grace?

Strauss-Kahn, who arrived back in Paris on Sunday, no longer has any chance of becoming French president next spring, even though he was seen as virtually unbeatable prior to his encounter with Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid, in a New York hotel suite in mid-May. Now his shadow falls across the election campaign that is just beginning. That shadow also darkens the prospects of the four men and two women who, in October, will face off in a Socialist Party primary that will determine the left's standard-bearer in the fight for the Elysée Palace.

That's because all six are seen as second-tier candidates. They are lesser replacements for a superman who was widely expected to lead the Socialists to a brilliant and probably certain victory. Now there is considerable anxiety over the Socialists' prospects, while the hypocrisy expressed in the anticipation over his return was as obvious as it was depressing.

Unspoken Pact

According to the polls, only two of the six candidates stand a realistic chance of being nominated to challenge the incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy. They are Martine Aubry, the 61-year-old daughter of the European politician Jacques Delors, who, until her candidacy, was chairwoman of the Socialist Party; and François Hollande, 57, Aubry's predecessor as head of the Socialists and the former partner of another candidate, Ségolène Royal.

Aubry is the candidate for whom the DSK scandal is most damaging. She had concluded an unspoken pact with Strauss-Kahn prior to his indiscretion in New York: She would help clear the way for his victory and would not run against him. Now she comes across as an unwilling stand-in, torn between loyalty and emancipation. She is also a woman whose words will weigh particularly heavily on female voters, for example when she expresses delight over the suspension of the case against Strauss-Kahn in New York, as she has done.

Upholding the presumption of innocence without excusing the behavior of the notorious womanizer is a political and moral balancing act that is virtually impossible. Last week, Aubry attempted it nonetheless and ended up pirouetting instead. First she said that she felt "the same way many women do about DSK's attitudes toward women" -- an almost grotesquely convoluted criticism. She added the understatement that Strauss-Kahn's behavior had "shocked some people, which I can understand."

Was that all? Apparently it was already more than enough. Aubry had hardly uttered those words before she was calling DSK's steadfast friends in the party and asking them to show some understanding for her tentative efforts to distance herself from Strauss-Kahn. But as it turned out, the former defendant Strauss-Kahn, during his house arrest in Washington and New York, had kept careful track of everything his fellow Socialists were saying at home.

"We talked about it," Aubry confessed. "He also talked to me about me, and about the things he could accuse me of. When you're friends with someone, you talk about everything."

Lacking Credibility

These aren't the words of a self-assured candidate. Her rival Hollande, 14 points ahead of Aubry in recent polls, did not pass up on the opportunity. "After all these declarations of unending friendship between Martine and Dominique, and the regular reports about their daily telephone conversations," sources close to Hollande said, "we were somewhat surprised by what Martine said."

But Hollande's position as the current frontrunner only has the appearance of being comfortable. Hollande had already declared his candidacy before prosecutors in New York prevented Strauss-Kahn from taking part in his party's primary. But this independence cannot hide the fact that he would not have stood a real chance against DSK before the New York incident.

Hollande had long lacked credibility in the eyes of the public. He was seen mainly as an entertaining speaker, quick-witted, ironic and partial to the good life. He embarked on a strict diet to gain presidential stature. He makes his personality the focus far more than Aubry does. She can point out, however, that he has no government experience, never having been a cabinet minister. To make matters worse, the party was a pitiful corpse when he handed over the reins to her. As the campaign begins, Aubry relentlessly recited what she dubbed "Martine's four priorities": employment, education, purchasing power and domestic security.

Even without Straus-Kahn's involvement, the process of weeding out candidates forces the Socialists to engage in a strange bout of shadow boxing. The six contenders must avoid direct attacks on each other, because they will later have to join forces to take on Sarkozy. At the same time, each candidate must emphasize his or her unique qualities that set them apart from the others, because an election is always a comparison, even if in this case it is one that can only be made implicitly. The result is absurd at times. "My daughter is the best," announced Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president. "As a father," Hollande shot back, "he has the right to say that."

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