FOR THE LAST 48 hours, the French press has been dominated by the disheartening news of the arrest in New York Saturday of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly assaulting and attempting to rape a hotel maid. Strauss-Kahn’s attorney has said his client denies the charges.
The arrest has thrown France’s political class into disarray. The conventional narrative, up until May 14, was that DSK, as he is known in France, had not only overcome a history of problems with women and corruption, he had survived a defeat by Ségolène Royal in his effort to run as the PS candidate in the 2007 presidential election. Until this week, he was the comeback politician the Left needed if it were to exploit disenchantment with President Nicolas Sarkozy and finally return to power. His celebrated role as managing director of the International Monetary Fund was following after a successful term as French Minister of Economics and Finance, where he proved himself to be a reliable center-right Socialist – that is to say, not a Socialist at all, at least as most understand the term; DSK’s Socialism was of the social variety, not the political-economic variety. As the European financial situation grew more perilous, the Socialists, under DSK, would capture the center and the left and handily defeat the very unpopular Sarkozy.
The Socialists, however, have only the one plausible leader. With that leader now sitting in a prison cell in New York City, the party is now scrambling to find a Plan B, but there is none. There is only a B-list of consolation candidates. Royal, who defeated DSK in the last presidential round of voting, is now seen as egotistical and shallow; Hollande, her former partner and the former PS leader, is seen as uninspiring and petty; Martine Aubry, the daughter of Jacques Delors, a proto-Europeanist, and the former mayor of Lille, is the current leader of the party and perhaps the default candidate, and she is soporific indeed.
Meanwhile, the right-wing National Front has a new leader in the person of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far more agreeable, more engaging, and much less eccentric daughter, Marine, who was born in August 1968, just 90 days after the May riots in which the French Left was reborn. As the Left has fallen, so Marine Le Pen has risen, and along with her, the National Front, which has been buoyed by its sensible eurosceptic views and less realistic anti-immigration policies. As it gains traction, the party is busy distancing itself from the elder Le Pen’s bizarre and offensive historical and social views – dismissing the Holocaust, for example, as a “detail”, or worrying about international Jewish conspiracies.
SO WITHOUT STRAUSS-KAHN at the top of the PS, the stage will be set for a replay of the 2002 French presidential election, in which the then-leader of the Socialist party, the nearly invisible Lionel Jospin, failed to win sufficient notice to go into the election’s final round, leaving Jacques Chirac to face the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. The result was Chirac’s landslide victory and the splintering of the Left. Although the Socialists have made some progress lately in regional elections, Aubry is very much like Jospin, especially in her ability to tranquilize voters, and the French political spectrum, from the center-right (corresponding to an American moderate-liberal position) to the extreme Left is a fragmented thing.
The Saturday of DSK’s arrest and the following day allowed the wave of shock to cross France, floating all the usual political personalities to say something, which was mostly surprise, followed by concern, followed by a refusal to leap to conclusions and wait for the mill of justice to turn in Manhattan. But it did give some of his supporters time to make fools of themselves. Gilles Savary, a Socialist MEP from Gironde and a DSK ally, wrote in his blog that arresting Strauss-Kahn for his alleged crime was redolent of conservative fury over Clinton’s cigars: “Everyone knows it’s true to say that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a hedonist (libertin), who is distinguished from others in that he doesn’t try to hide it.” The problem, wrote Savary, is American prudery. “In puritanical America, where everything is shaped by unforgiving Protestantism, they tolerate white-collar crime more than they do pleasures of the flesh.” Mind you, this is DSK’s flesh, not that of the chambermaid whom he allegedly assaulted. Maybe she was just too Protestant to enjoy M. Savary’s idea of pleasure.
Many in France, where 9/11 conspiracies are accepted as truth, are falling in line behind another Strauss-Kahn ally, Michelle Sabban, a Socialist on the Ile-de-France regional council, who believes DSK was set-up by a ring of international financiers. In normal conspiracy parlance (or in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s fevered imaginings), that would translate to a Jewish-banker conspiracy, except DSK is a Jewish banker. Nonetheless, said Mme. Sabban, “everyone knew his weakness was the seductiveness of women,” and this, she told AFP (reported here in Le Figaro), is how they got to him in his $3000-a-night hotel room, then how they removed him from the tranquility of his first-class seat on an Air France jet only moments away from a take-off for Paris and how they removed him from the IMF and from importance. To block a rescue of Greece (and presumably Portugal and others) on the easier terms associated with Strauss-Kahn’s approach, the international banking conspiracy used a woman. And just to make sure, they dressed her as a maid. To follow Mme. Sabban’s reasoning, how could DSK resist? And why should he?
It’s likely that Strauss-Kahn’s erasure from the IMF will have almost no effect on international finance. Its only effect will be on French domestic politics, and there it will be pronounced. Sarkozy’s profound failure as a politician was to distance himself from France’s ruling élite. That’s why he was elected in 2007 – his victory was a victory over the incestuous, self-serving énarques who had driven French voters from indifference to despair. Now there are more énarques in Sarkozy’s government than there were in Chirac’s. He has become one of them. Like Chirac in 2002, he will be re-elected and serve five more years, despised as Chirac was despised.
Outside Paris’s political clique, there is a more human, if more incomprehensible – and perhaps badly timed – concern. “What of our reputation?” a woman in my village asked. “After DSK, what will the world think of France?”
– Denis Boyles
Denis Boyles is a co-editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series.
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