No sooner had he been elected French president in 2007 than Nicolas Sarkozy began to emasculate the opposition. One by one,Socialist grandees were picked off,co-opted or dispatched out of the country. Mr Sarkozy installed no fewer than six figures from the left in government,including Bernard Kouchner,the foreign minister. He selected others,such as Jacques Attali,Jack Lang and Michel Rocard,to serve on grand commissions. And he persuaded fellow Europeans to back his nomination of Dominique Strauss-Kahn,a Socialist one-time finance minister,to head the IMF in Washington.
By robbing the Socialist party of some of its stars and compromising the left-wing credentials of others,all of these moves have worked well for Mr Sarkozy bar one. The appointment of Mr Strauss-Kahn is turning into a headache,as manoeuvring begins for Frances 2012 presidential election. Thanks to the crisis,the IMF job has transformed a losing contender for the 2007 Socialist presidential nomination into a figure of international stature. Mr Strauss-Kahn now ranks as Frances most popular politician,according to a monthly survey by TNS Sofres,a polling agency. Another poll found that,in a hypothetical run-off vote,Mr Strauss-Kahn would beat Mr Sarkozy by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
The IMF boss had until recently kept silent about his plans. Interviewed on a popular French television show last November,he refused to discuss his ambitions,insisting on talking about banks and bail-outs instead. Now,however,he has hinted that he may run in 2012. At the moment,I intend to finish my mandate, he told French radio on February 4th,referring to his term at the IMF,which runs out in September 2012,four months after the French vote. But if you are asking whether,in certain circumstances,I could reconsider that question,the answer is yes.
In the view of one friend,of course he is preparing a come-back. He is already on the campaign. Political allies are readying the ground for him. Every couple of months Mr Strauss-Kahn drops into Paris,lunching and dining with the right people. When he ran for the Socialist nomination in 2006,he was roundly beaten by Ségolène Royal,whose popularity with party members outweighed her shortcomings. Now,however,his IMF job has given him weight and credibility and supplied him with an enviable album of photos standing beside world leaders.
There are obstacles,however. Chief of these is uncertainty over the procedure for selecting a Socialist presidential nominee. Last time round,the party held its vote only five months before the first-round presidential poll. But the timing may not be so propitious for Mr Strauss-Kahn this time. If the Socialists hold their vote early in 2011,this would force him to resign from the IMF more than a year before his term expires. Martine Aubry,the partys leader,says that she would prefer a vote in the second half of 2011. Other ambitious types do not agree.
We are not going to adapt the vote to suit just one person, snaps one.
Another issue is the potential fallout from a workplace sexual-harassment scandal involving Mr Strauss-Kahn in 2008. He was cleared by an independent inquiry,but the IMF board noted that the incident was regrettable and reflected a serious error of judgment. The French are not usually bothered by such matters,but Mr Strauss-Kahns enemies could bring them up to try to destabilise him.
A final question hangs over the plans of other would-be candidates. Mr Strauss-Kahn is unlikely to want to give up his plum job to return to face a grubby nomination contest. Better to work out some sort of deal with potential rivals,such as Ms Aubry,ahead of time. Yet,for the moment,Ms Aubry is leaving open the possibility that she might ultimately decide to stand. So are others,including François Hollande,Ms Aubrys predecessor. And then there is Ms Royal; the losing candidate from 2007 may have faded from view for now,but she has a proven capacity for headline-grabbing disruption.