Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York City on sexual assault charges on May 14 threw the French Socialist Party (PS) into chaos just as it was about to open a primary campaign for selecting its presidential candidate—a competition “DSK” was widely expected to win. His release and the apparent collapse of the Manhattan district attorney’s case against him has the potential to cause further turmoil in a party that was still reeling from the scandal. Could DSK, whose political career had been universally regarded as over, still become the PS’s candidate—and, potentially, French president?
Though at this point all bets are off, a DSK candidacy seems highly unlikely. For several reasons.
First, there are significant logistical hurdles. July 13 is the deadline the PS has set for filing candidacy. DSK’s next New York court date, however, is July 18. He can’t leave the US before then. Unlike American primaries, which are set by state governments, the socialist primary is organized by the PS itself—though, for the first time, anyone who is eligible to vote in France and who signs an affidavit in support of “the left’s values” can participate. Consequently, it would be fairly easy for the PS’s leadership simply to push back the deadline. At least one “strauss-kahnien” has already called for this. François Hollande, a major contender for the nomination, has gamely concurred. But such a decision is a potential minefield. In doing so, the party’s leadership would be essentially siding with DSK over other contenders (of which there are currently five). And this could easily be exploited by other parties, particularly now that DSK, whatever his legal status, is largely reviled by public opinion.
Secondly, there are considerable political obstacles. DSK had a pact with Martine Aubry, the PS’s leader: she would only run if he didn’t. Last week, she officially declared her candidacy, temporarily handing over the party leadership to a subordinate named Harlem Désir (who really should be in the running, if only for his name). If DSK joined the race, either he he would have to run against Aubry, a not negligible force within the PS, or Aubry would have to withdraw, undermining her political credibility.
Moreover, having been (or so they thought) deprived of their leader, DSK’s supporters have started to throw their lots with other candidates (one of the most notable features of the PS is the role of clan-like caucuses called courants, which are essentially patron-client networks organized around a handful of major figures, often referred to as “elephants”). Some, like DSK’s consigliore, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, have sided with Aubry. Even more have joined François Hollande, the former PS leader who, since DSK’s arrest, has emerged as a leading candidate for the nomination—and Aubry’s principle rival. The former minister Pierre Moscovici and Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, are among the most prominent strauss-kahniens to have rallied Hollande. A DSK candidacy could, at this point, be extremely divisive within the PS, reinforcing its image as a dysfunctional party mired in petty personal squabbles.
Third, and most importantly: do socialists still want DSK to be their candidate? Even before his arrest, I always thought nominating an IMF director as a candidate for a socialist party was going to be a hard sell, particularly at a time when “altermondialisme” (i.e., the anti-globalization ideology) has replaced Marxism as the far left’s lingua franca. DSK’s appeal was precisely that he could attract centrist and even conservative voters. Among socialists, particularly the party’s left, he has always been suspect. For many leftists, DSK’s main problem wasn’t that he raped women, but that he ate babies—or, to the extent that he was the public face of “neoliberal globalization,” something awfully close.
The DSK affair has unquestionably initiated a debate in France about its troubling tolerance for macho, sexist, and simply boorish male behavior. But even in the event that DSK is completely exonerated of the charge of rape, the past six weeks have reminded left-wing voters of his personality, aspects of which are likely to make many a little queasy when they consider who they want as their standard bearer. Shortly before his arrest, the newspaper Le Parisien published photos of DSK and his wife, Anne Sinclair, getting into a fancy Porsche during a recent Paris visit (the car was owned, it turns out, by his advisor, Ramzi Khiroun).Rumors circulated of DSK’s taste for tailored suits worth tens of thousands of dollars. No sooner was he released from jail on Friday than he and his wife laid down $700 for dinner (pasta with truffles!) at Scalinatella, an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. And even if turns out that the victim’s story is a complete fabrication (which of course has yet to be established), the fact remains that DSK will have gotten himself out of trouble by hiring expensive Manhattan attorneys to attack an immigrant maid from Guinea. French socialists may not know exactly what they believe in, but many will have a difficult time recognizing themselves in a candidate with such proclivities—particularly when President Sarkozy’s own taste for “bling” has been the subject of much commentary (and disdain).
It thus seems unlikely, despite his very high poll ratings before May 14, that DSK could now win the socialist primary, presuming he is even interested. Yet this is, however, a shame. Even if DSK treated women differently, he would be far from an ideal candidate (on a personal and moral level, Aubry is far more attractive). But he was one of the few people who might have been able to pull off what the PS has failed to achieve for years: a makeover into a mainstream European social democratic party—one that could defend the principles of political liberalism and demonstrate economic competence (involving a partial reconciliation with the market economy), while emphasizing issues of social justice and the centrality of public services. This is the socialist lineage to which DSK belongs, which harks back to the efforts of Michel Rocard and the “Second Left” (deuxième gauche) in the seventies to awaken French socialism from its Marxist slumbers.
DSK once theorized his position as “social-libéralisme,” or liberal socialism (see his 2002 essay, La flamme et la cendre). He thus sought to invoke the tradition of the Italian thinker Carlo Rosselli, who remarked that socialism exists when “liberty comes into the life of poor people” (needless to say, DSK doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong spokesperson for this idea at present). But the anti-globalization movement has largely succeeded in making “liberalism” (in the non-American sense) a dirty word. There is a constituency in the socialist party that strongly rejects social-libéralisme as a Trojan horse for neoliberalism. In the primary race, this view is represented by Arnaud Montebourg, whose mantra is démondialisation—“de-globalization.” Manuel Valls, another candidate for the nomination, explicitly advocates social-libéralisme, yet with little chance of attracting much support. François Hollande is trying to cast himself as the heir to the social democratic mantle that DSK embodied (while avoiding the term social-libéralisme because of its controversial resonance). This is part of the reason many of the latter’s lieutenants are lining up to support him. But Hollande lacks DSK’s stature, experience, and intellect. Aubry in her own way has important connections to the social-democratic idea—her father, after all, is Jacques Delors (Catholic trade unionist, erstwhile finance minister and president of the EU commission, and the great presidential hope of 1995, until he withdrew himself from the running). But she will be supported by elements within the PS that want to pull it in a more recognizably leftist direction.
In any case, as troubling as DSK is personally and politically, his political demise (whether it was suicidal or not remains to be determined) leaves a vacuum on the left that few are in a position to fill. Least of all DSK himself.