As nobody who hasn’t been living in a Faraday cage on Ellesmere Island for the past four days no longer knows, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF managing director and probable next president of the French Republic, has been charged with attempted rape and has been remanded in custody of the New York police. I’m sure the AFOE Whole Control Inter-Macro Economic Soul Patrol will have some thoughts about the future leadership of the IMF in due course. For mine, I’m tempted to think that rudderless confusion is probably the least harmful condition for this organisation, but I know not every reader will agree.
Anyway. What about French politics? That’s bound to be more fun.
The most important fact here is that DSK was predicted by national polls to beat all the other candidates in the next presidential election. The Socialist leadership has been something between a soap opera and a French movie about self-torturing neurotic dread of action for years, but basically everybody expected that once he decided he was going to run, not only would he win the primary, but he’d also take out the general election. The facts are pretty simple – President Sarkozy has the worst poll rating of any French president ever. The extreme-right leader, Marine Le Pen, is doing better than ever. But DSK was both the top pick out of the Socialists, and also the polls’ pick for the big gig.
In fact, there was widespread speculation that the horrible experience of May, 2002 might be reversed. Rather than the extreme Left splitting the vote and leaving a run-off between the extreme Right and the Gaullist Right, the extreme Right would split the vote and leave a run-off between the extreme Right and the Socialists. This scenario was a little like a nuclear attack on Manchester destroying Old Trafford and Maine Road. A lot of people would think it a terrible disaster. But quite a lot of the people most concerned would have to mourn through gritted teeth to keep from laughing with pure schadenfreude.
Who was DSK? An academic economist and long-time Socialist, from a well-off family, one of those men who always seem to come up lucky. He was an effective minister of Finance, Economics, and Industry in the Jospin government, and he presided over possibly the first time the IMF ever thought wages should go up. I remember him wanting to know why the British let General Electric buy the division of Amersham International plc that at the time made practically all the world’s DNA sequencers. I still haven’t heard anyone answer that.
In French politics, he was very much parallel to his contemporary Peter Mandelson in Britain. Both ran economic ministries with some success, and did likewise as international civil servants. Both were considered dangerously foreign to their own parties for a mixture of reasons to do with ideology and with style – both liked the company of the rich and enjoyed good tailoring and better travel. They were certainly both well to the right of their parties, but it was DSK who was responsible for the 35 hours law in France, and the British Labour Party is now rediscovering how little it likes Conservative government in general. They were also both disliked for appearing clever, visibly enjoying cleverness, and repeatedly winning in micro-political squabbles with the journalists who hated them. As is the way with people who are genuinely clever and effective and look like they enjoy it, they were both hated and indispensable to the leaders of their respective movements.
It is probably worth pointing out that they are both Jewish and – much as everyone involved would deny it – this does look like a role grounded in stereotype.
Mandelson collected a lot of fairly horrible abuse from the cheaper end of the British press because (and again, everyone involved will now whine about this) he’s gay. DSK was regularly written up as a stereotypical French ladies’ man, a Latin lover for whom it was all both indivisible from his personality and from the sheer style of politics.
It seems, in the absence of a coup de theatre to blow the theatre roof off, that only one of these statements was true. Women are already turning up who claim that he raped them years ago – most shamefully, one of them was apparently told by her mother to shut up. Her mother is a relatively important official in the PS’s regional organisation for Paris, DSK’s power base throughout his career, and someone who could perhaps have expected favour if and when he was back in power. This week’s Canard EnchainÃ© is likely to be an explosively sordid document.
It would seem that the whole story is the classic one of an abuser protected by his friends, family, and colleagues. The network would say nothing, and indeed would influence others to say nothing, until the day when he pushed his luck outside its zone of influence. At this point, it is usual for a whole lot of people to have sudden and wholly unexpected fits of principle. I would not be surprised if skeletons tumbled from many other French politicians’ cupboards in the next few weeks. If I sound pissed off, well, how many other people were convinced that he was a decent man?
So far, the party and specifically the Ile de France regional federation seems to be…well, check out the list. It is to be expected that a lot of the people named will rapidly forget that the whole thing is a plot against them because Sofitel is a French company. (Surely, had he stayed at the Hilton, that would have been even more suspicious?) I hear that this tone of denial is quite widespread among people who certainly ought to know better.
Upshot? It seems unlikely anyone will be more satisfied with Sarkozy as a result. In fact, only a revolution of opinion would be enough to help much. And Sarkozy’s personal style – all yachts and executive jets and watches and models – is rather like DSK’s. It will probably give Marine Le Pen a little more.
Inside the PS, expect yet more neurosis. DSK’s supporters skew to the right of the party, and he has a particular beef with Laurent Fabius (who in any case isn’t going to win). In the absence of other factors, they’d probably be spread roughly equally between SÃ©golÃ©ne Royal, FranÃ§ois Hollande, and Martine Aubry. But there are other factors. Royal and Aubry have defined geographical power bases, Royal from being president of Poitou-Charentes, Aubry from being mayor of Lille. If you had to pick, you’d probably take the second for an intra-party fight. DSK’s support is localised in Paris – it was the only PS federation not to vote for Royal as candidate last time out. Hollande’s base is in the party organisation, from his years as first secretary and therefore chief organiser. It’s fair to say that a lot of his people are also based in the capital, so he might claim more of a bonus than anyone else. He has recently been enjoying an upward trend in the polls.
It is possible that this is an end of an era, or at least a significant moment in moral history. As I said above, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were more disgraces in short order, and that the general tolerance-level will have been reduced to a more defensible value.
Also, the style of French politics is changing. Mitterand is dead, Jacques Chirac is gone. Sarkozy is the least popular president on record. DSK, Laurent Fabius, Charles Pasqua, Simone Veil, Edith Cresson, Rachida Dati, a whole series of enormous and often enormously flawed personalities have left the scene in one way or another. Dominique de Villepin and Alain JuppÃ© hang around, but will either make any impact?
The new style is understated and in fact quite dull. On the Right, there are people like FranÃ§ois Fillon and Christine Lagarde – a gang of grey managers. On the Left, people like Hollande and Aubry – solid town hall politicians. Marine Le Pen’s unique selling point is that she makes fascism boring. Her party’s thuggish stewards have been ordered by party headquarters to dispense with their shiny boots and paramilitary trappings, and are said to be exploring British football-casual style for the future. So much the better for the Italian textile sector, so much the worse for Leicester. But perhaps dull is good. It’s worth remembering that dull is great news in the long term of European history. They said Clement Attlee was dull.
And now, for the IMF…