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IMF Chief Scandal Throws French Elections A Curveball

A woman reads the French newspaper "Le Parisien" headlining on IMF head arrest, in Paris, Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A woman reads the French newspaper "Le Parisien" headlining on IMF head arrest, in Paris, Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Just a week ago, Strauss-Khan headed one of the world's most powerful institutions, appeared likely to run - and win - France's 2012 presidential race

The indictment of ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges has upended French politics just a year before presidential elections.

Just a week ago, Dominique Strauss-Khan headed one of the world's most powerful institutions and appeared likely to run - and win - France's 2012 presidential race. Now Strauss-Kahn has resigned from his job as International Monetary Fund chief and spent several days in prison after allegedly assaulting a hotel maid.

As he prepares for a likely trial in New York, his political career appears over - and France's election landscape has been thrown into turmoil.

Like many analysts, France Television reporter and former Washington correspondent Ulysse Gosset, describes the changes as cataclysmic.

"It's an earthquake for French politics and probably everything has changed in one week since the scandal has emerged in the United States. It's a big shock for French public opinion," he said.

As the Strauss-Kahn controversy rages here, the political fallout appears unclear. So far, the sexual assault allegations dogging him have not hurt the image of his opposition Socialist party. Indeed, an IPSOS survey this week puts another, less charismatic Socialist politician, Francois Hollande, ahead in the polls, scoring 29 percent of possible votes - 10 points ahead of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Hollande has started his campaign a few months ago quietly, saying he was a normal man and a good politician. And this image of stability and normality in [this] context is probably going to play in his favor," said Gosset.

The Strauss-Kahn scandal has also benefited another politician - Marine Le Pen, the 42-year-old leader of the far-right National Front and a rising star in French politics.

Le Pen told French radio Thursday that Strauss-Kahn's indictment definitely puts him out of the presidential race. She has described him as politically discredited.

Along with support, Strauss-Kahn also earned derision among ordinary French, who criticized his wealthy, "caviar-left" lifestyle. Analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges believes the sexual assault charges now facing him only serve to deepen public disillusionment toward the political establishment.

"It's clear Strauss-Kahn... is [perceived] as somebody who is above the law... It's why the great winner - and it's a pity - is Mrs. Le Pen. Because first, she's a populist and second point, she's not a traditional politician - she doesn't belong to the club," he said.

So far, President Sarkozy has remained uncharacteristically silent about the scandal. In 2007, he championed Strauss-Kahn's candidacy to head the IMF - in part, observers say, to get a rival out of the way.

Strauss-Kahn's downfall has not improved Sarkozy's ratings. He remains one of France's most unpopular presidents ever.

Still, journalist Gossett says it's too early to write off a second Sarkozy term.

"He's going to fight right to the end and he's very efficient. So even if the polls are low today, it doesn't mean a thing."

Next week, Sarkozy hosts the G8 summit in the French city of Deauville - giving him the opportunity to burnish his international statesman's stature.

And there are a slew of reports that his glamorous wife, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, is pregnant. The presidency has no comment, but recent pictures of Mrs. Sarkozy are revealing. That may cast the French president in another flattering light - as a happily married, family man.