Strauss-Kahn homecoming puts Socialists in a muddle

Socialist presidential hopeful Martine Aubry made a surprise move away from Dominique Strauss-Kahn this week, forcing other party members to decide on a suitable distance from the one-time golden boy before his imminent return to France.


Martine Aubry, the head of France's Socialist Party and a leading contender in the forthcoming Socialist presidential primaries, took a tentative step away from Dominique Strauss-Kahn earlier this week, just days before his expected return to France.

Speaking of Strauss-Kahn's “attitude towards women,” Aubry called on the 63-year-old former head of the International Monetary Fund to “explain himself”.

Up until then, Aubry had stood firmly behind Strauss-Kahn following his arrest in New York in May, repeating the mantra “innocent until proven guilty” each time she was probed on the subject. When the case against him was dropped last week, Aubry expressed “immense relief”, congratulating him on the end of his “nightmare”. Like many of her fellow countrymen, she chose to assume the “none of my business” position concerning the sexual encounter in the hotel room which left hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo with an injured shoulder and vaginal bruising.

So it came as some surprise to French ears when Aubry told audiences on Canal+ Television that she shared the feelings of other women concerning Strauss-Kahn's behaviour towards the female sex. The Socialist Party leader suggested that Strauss-Kahn might want to “explain himself” when he gets home.

“The French people do not expect me to tell them what went on in that hotel room. I have no idea. He’ll be here soon and we’ll be asking him some questions,” she said in her television appearance this week.

Keeping a safe distance

Aubry’s move away from Strauss-Kahn rattled an already nervous Socialist Party, which is preparing to hold primaries in just seven weeks. The winner of the poll will face President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election. But, as yet, none of the six candidates have managed to steal the show.

Until his arrest in New York, Strauss-Kahn had been widely touted to win the Socialist primaries and go on to beat Sarkozy hands down. His untimely downfall sent the opposition into disarray, sparking finger-pointing and conspiracy theories.

“After his arrest in May, some Socialists spoke openly of a potential scam to discredit Strauss-Kahn and get him out of the 2012 election,” explains Bruno Jeanbart, polling director for Paris-based OpinionWay research institute. “They rejected the rape story completely. Today, they’re really embarrassed about that.”

Strauss-Kahn's closest allies have been quick to reposition themselves in the wake of his arrest. Pierre Moscovici, a former Socialist minister, has rallied behind the left's new favourite, François Hollande, while Jean-Christope Cambadelis, another Strauss-Kahn ally, has been campaigning for Martine Aubry.

Adopting the right stance on the Strauss-Kahn affair has proved more delicate for Aubry, who is hoping to become France’s first woman president. “Aubry has more women supporters than her male counterparts,” Jeanbart told FRANCE 24. “But seeing as French women on the whole are no less sympathetic to Strauss-Kahn than men, it won’t necessarily do her any favours to shun him because of that.”

According to a survey by French daily Le Monde, French women are largely indifferent to Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour, much the same way as French men are.

Yet, Jeanbart argues that Aubry’s distancing is “nonetheless a sensible precaution” so long as Strauss-Kahn continues to face legal proceedings. “We really don’t know what is going to happen to Strauss-Kahn in the next few months,” he said.

The former IMF chief still faces a civil suit from Ms Diallo in New York, and may also have to tackle charges in his homeland, after French writer Tristane Banon accused him of attempting to rape her nine years ago.

Attention-grabbing and ‘mentally ill’, but an asset nonetheless

Some Socialists with less at stake in the elections have been more blunt, notably Michel Rocard, a former prime minister.

Rocard ruffled feathers on Monday when he said of Strauss-Kahn on Canal+ TV: "The man obviously has a mental illness, trouble controlling his impulses. He's out of the game. It's a shame. He had real talent, that's true."

While Aubry and other Socialists edge away from Strauss-Kahn, one candidate who is refusing to budge is primary frontrunner François Hollande. On August 22, he drew attention to his campaign by saying that “a man with Strauss-Kahn’s abilities could be useful in the coming months and years”.

“Strauss-Kahn could be a very strong asset for a primary candidate,” said OpinionWay's Jeanbart. “But nobody has worked out how to safely incorporate him into their campaign. Aubry may also have a secondary worry, that if Strauss-Kahn is brought in too quickly, he will attract so much media attention that he will take centre-stage, and she will look like a second-choice candidate.”

The Socialist Party leader only announced her candidacy once it had become clear that Strauss-Kahn would not be running for the presidency. Critics say the move made her come across as a reluctant campaigner and a mere back-up for the former IMF chief, who consistently polled higher than her.

Even after his legal saga, Strauss-Kahn has managed to retain a healthy following among the left-leaning electorate in France. Some 52 per cent of Socialist supporters said they would like to see him in a future government, according to a survey carried out by French polling institute BVA last week.

But as she weighed her move this week, Aubry may have had other figures in mind. According to a survey published in the left-wing daily Libération, some 56 per cent of voters across the political board say they do not want to see Strauss-Kahn in office again. While he might serve as a bonus in the Socialist primary poll, the one-time Socialist favourite may yet do more harm than good when it comes to facing Sarkozy.


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