A provocative interview and an awkward public appearance by Dominique Strauss-Kahn this weekend have left François Hollande's Socialists red-faced just days before the crucial presidential runoff vote with Nicolas Sarkozy.
With just six days before the second-round vote in the French presidential election, and polls showing a slightly tightening race, it is not exactly the eleventh-hour development Socialist frontrunner François Hollande was hoping for.
Scandal-plagued Dominique Strauss-Kahn has made an unwelcome entry into the campaign, topping weekend headlines with an awkward appearance at a high-profile private party in Paris, and making provocative comments about the attempted rape charges he faced in New York in a newspaper interview.
Now the Socialists are scrambling to distance themselves from the man who was once considered their biggest hope for evicting Nicolas Sarkozy from office, but is now seen as their biggest pariah. Eager to avoid any last-minute damage to a presidential bid that has all the indications of success in the May 6 runoff, Hollande declared on TV Sunday that Strauss-Kahn “no longer has a role in political life”.
An embarrassing party guest
Some of Hollande’s most visible surrogates found themselves fighting to free themselves and their candidate of any association with Strauss-Kahn on Sunday, after the shamed politician stopped by a Paris birthday party for prominent Socialist Julien Dray. Hollande’s campaign chair Pierre Moscovici, his communications director Manuel Valls, and his former partner and 2007 presidential contender Ségolène Royal all publicly declared they immediately left the party once they learned that Strauss-Kahn was on his way.
But they were nevertheless forced to justify any possible continued affiliation with Strauss-Kahn. Valls stated that Strauss-Kahn was no longer linked in any way with the Hollande campaign, and “has no reason to come back into it”.
Royal, meanwhile, told journalists that it was “out of the question” to see Strauss-Kahn face-to-face, “in the name of women’s rights and respect for women”. On top of being haunted by two sexual assault cases, the former International Monetary Fund chief is currently under investigation in France for involvement in a prostitution ring based in the northern city of Lille.
DSK speaks, Sarkozy strikes
Sarkozy pounced on Monday, accusing Socialist leaders of downplaying what he implied to be their continued ties to the man once widely admired as the brains and the future of their party. “Just months ago, the whole Socialist Party was hoping for a candidate named Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” he said in a TV interview. “There’s no shame in being friends and defending your friends…but you need to own up to it. What’s troubling in all of this is the deception, the hypocrisy, and the lying.”
Strauss-Kahn’s first step back into front-page news came on Friday, when British daily The Guardian published an interview with the former IMF chief in which he alleges that the New York attempted rape case was “shaped by those with a political agenda”. In other words, by Sarkozy insiders who viewed Strauss-Kahn as a threat.
In the interview, Strauss-Kahn tells US journalist Edward Jay Epstein that his sexual encounter with Sofitel hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo was not a setup, but the ensuing charges and media frenzy were orchestrated by French political enemies. “I simply did not believe that they would go that far,” Strauss-Kahn says in the interview.
On Sunday, Strauss-Kahn’s representatives told the press he had not given an interview to The Guardian, and that the interview published in the paper was pieced together from Epstein’s upcoming book on the DSK saga.
But The Guardian is standing by its story, and the flap gave Sarkozy an opportunity to take a rhetorical swipe not only at the former Socialist big-wig, but by proxy at the party at large. The president addressed Strauss-Kahn at a Saturday rally in Clermont-Ferrand: “Explain yourself to judicial authorities, and spare the French people your comments,” he said to cheers.
With a much-anticipated televised debate scheduled for Wednesday night, Hollande is expected to face further attempts from Sarkozy to tie Socialists to a man who could tarnish the party’s image before next weekend’s vote.
A survey by French polling agency Ipsos released Monday showed Hollande at 53 percent and Sarkozy at 47 percent of intentions to vote, with the Socialist and the sitting president having lost and gained a point, respectively.