When I first heard that Dominique Strauss-Kahn— managing director of the International Monetary Fund, leading French Socialist politician, and potential candidate for the French presidency in 2012—was alleged to have emerged naked from a New York hotel bathroom, sexually assaulted a chambermaid, run out of the hotel, and been arrested while boarding the next plane to Paris, my first thought was: Sarkozy must be behind this.
I know I am not alone in this thought, because several people emailed me the same idea—and only half in jest. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, is so wacky, so unpredictable, so far behind in the opinion polls, and so desperate to be re-elected that he would do anything to reverse his fortunes. Of course, the notion that he set up the chambermaid is bizarre—but then there are those who believe, equally bizarrely, that his wife, Carla Bruni, is hinting about pregnancy in order to make him more popular.
Indeed, the very fact that so many jumped to the conclusion that Sarkozy set up Strauss-Kahn tells you a good deal. Since his election, Sarkozy has evolved from erratic to eccentric. At times he sounds like a free-marketeer, an admirer of capitalism red in tooth and claw. At other times he promises state funding and undying support to French industry. His presidency has been dominated by a rolling series of scandals, and though he isn't the source of all of them, they haven't made him look good, either.
He drives everyone around him to distraction. At meetings he stands up, sits down, and marches out of the room when he feels bored. One former Sarkozy subordinate told me some months ago that the French president never reads anything, presumably because his abnormally short concentration span precludes such activity. He does, however, watch a lot of television. With proper French intellectual disdain, my acquaintance said that this puts him "in close touch with ordinary French people."
But Sarkozy has been a disappointment to ordinary French people, considering that he was elected to find a solution to what is euphemistically termed the French "immigration" issue—or, to be more precise, the problem of unassimilated North Africans who live permanently in France—but hasn't. He was also elected to make the French feel economically secure, but he hasn't done that, either.
Which brings us back to Strauss-Kahn: Unlike Sarkozy, he had a reputation as a responsible adult with a good head for economics—at least until this week. Unlike Sarkozy, he was also on an upward swing: His Socialist Party was due to vote on its presidential nomination within a few weeks. Timing is everything. If Strauss-Kahn did behave as badly as he appears to have done, he will discredit not only himself but his party's nomination process—as well as the party as a whole. At least one other woman has now recounted a similar incident. Will there be more? Will Strauss-Kahn's Socialist colleagues turn out to have known about them?
Strauss-Kahn also risks discrediting, once again, the entire French political class. Some of Sarkozy's inner circle are said to be not displeased by his arrest. One government minister told Le Monde, "There's a kind of jubilation because these Socialist types haven't stopped lecturing us on morals and virtue for years." But here is a prediction: Sarkozy will not benefit from Strauss-Kahn's ugly demise. The main beneficiary will be the politician with the fastest-growing constituency in France at the moment: Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and now the leader of the uber-nationalist, anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front. Much more presentable than her father, Le Pen started polling higher than Sarkozy in March, not least because she offers populist economics and promises to prevent the number of North African immigrants from swelling. And she has good reason to believe in her chances: Once before, in 2002, Marine's father unexpectedly wound up in a presidential runoff against the then-president, Jacques Chirac. Chirac won in a landslide, but the French establishment got a good scare.
Maybe they weren't scared enough: France seems consumed by the same kinds of scandals, the same grumpiness about foreigners, and the same sense that the political class is out of touch as it did 10 years ago. French politicians continue to live in a world remote from that of the "ordinary" people they are meant to represent. Strauss-Kahn's arrest certainly won't make any of the mainstream parties more popular than they were last week. How many will want a radical alternative?