Sex, plots, politics

2011-05-19 00:00

YOU couldn't fall farther or faster than Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was not only the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Until last weekend, he was almost certainly within a year of being elected president of France. Now he sits in a small cell in New York City's notorious Rikers Island prison, denied bail and waiting to learn if a grand jury will indict him for attempted rape, a criminal sexual act and unlawful imprisonment. It probably will.

It is not possible to know for sure what happened in his $3 000-a-day luxury suite in the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan at lunch time on May 14, but the New York police took a chambermaid's allegations of forced oral sex and attempted rape seriously enough to pull Strauss-Kahn off an Air France plane just before it took off for Paris later that afternoon. Now the IMF is headless, and the French presidential race is transformed.

The French media routinely ignore the kind of sexual liaisons that would ruin a politician's career­ if they became known in a more puritanical country like the United States. But DSK, it has become clear, was not just your average libertine.

It is Strauss-Kahn's behaviour towards women that has done him in. Even if he is found innocent in the New York incident, he now also faces the claim that he tried to rape Tristane Banon, a novelist and journalist, in 2002.

Banon was persuaded not to pursue the issue at that time by her mother, Anne Mansouret, a senior figure in the Socialist Party who saw DSK as a rising star in the party. He was also a family friend. But Mansouret supports her daughter's claim that Strauss-Kahn attacked her sexually, acting, as Banon puts it, "like a chimpanzee­ in rut".

None of this would be getting much publicity if Strauss-Kahn were just another French businessperson arrested abroad. Even if he were just the head of the IMF, it would be a one-day wonder. But DSK was the favourite­ to win the Socialist nomination­ for the presidency of France, and then to trounce the unpopular right-wing incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in the elections next spring.

His departure from the race means that Sarkozy, despite having the lowest approval rating for any French president yet, could yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Here's how it could happen.

The French left, with no single strong candidate like DSK to unite behind, splits and puts up several rival candidates for the presidency. (Something similar happened in 2002.) With the left-wing vote hopelessly split, the leading two parties in the first round of voting next April are Sarkozy's right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the ultra-right-wing National Front. (That happened in 2002, too.)

Neither the UMP or the National Front has won even 20% of the vote, but as the two leading parties they go through to the second round of voting in May. And since the great majority of French people­ loathe the National Front and think it unworthy of office, they hold their noses and vote for Sarkozy, who wins 80% of the vote despite being the least popular French president in history.

That's almost exactly what happened in 2002, when another right-wing president, Jacques Chirac, who was widely believed to be corrupt, won a second term in a runoff against the National Front's founder and then leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. (One of the posters in the second round of voting that time simply read: "Vote for the crook, not the fascist".)

Similarly, Sarkozy may end up in a runoff against Le Pen's daughter Marine, who now leads the National Front. All the polls indicate that she could not possibly win such a contest. DSK's fall may mean Sarkozy's survival — which is why more than half of the French, and 70% of French socialists, believe that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a plot.

That would not necessarily mean that he is innocent. Given his track record with women — three wives, dozens of affairs, and a chronic inability to keep his hands to himself — just presenting him with the opportunity to behave badly could have been enough.

In our current state of know-ledge, it's simply not possible to say with confidence what happened or why. But it's pretty safe to say that Sarkozy will be the biggest beneficiary.

• Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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