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What Strauss-Kahn's Arrest Means For Nicolas Sarkozy

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York City is likely to result in his withdrawal from the 2012 presidential elections. What’s not yet clear is how much of a benefit that would actually be for President Sarkozy, who stands to lose both a rival and a

What Strauss-Kahn's Arrest Means For Nicolas Sarkozy
Charles Jaigu and Judith Waintraub

The news reached the Élysée presidential palace in the wee hours of Sunday morning, at roughly 1:30 a.m. At that time, the French consulate in New York sent to the offices of the president the statement of charges drawn up by the police station in Harlem, where Dominique Strauss-Kahn was taken into custody. President Nicolas Sarkozy was then able to familiarize himself with the details concerning the allegations against the head of the IMF.

Sarkozy promptly sent his government spokesperson, François Baroin, to give what would be the only official reaction from the presidential office. "Extraordinary prudence must be maintained in the words, analyses, comments, and aftermath," he declared on France 2. At the same time Baroin made it clear Dominique Strauss-Kahn would have "the possibility to express his position and give his version of the events." The spokesperson added that, "the position of the French government adheres to two simple principles: first of all, the compliance with judicial court procedures under the authority of the American justice system, within the framework of applying U.S. law, and second, the respect for the presumption of innocence."

Yesterday, the Élysée explained that it "is not excluding the possibility of a turn of events that could then result in a reversal of the situation, thus favoring Strauss-Kahn." Hence the choice to abide by "a principal of maximum caution." The leaders of the majority UMP received instructions to "rise above" the events and to react with "moderation," "without condemning" the Socialists, which all of the polls until yesterday showed winning in 2012.

However, the UMP deputy of Paris, Bernard Debré, had spoken out before receiving the request for silence among the ranks of the party when he was interviewed about the event. He said yesterday morning that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was "a disreputable man," henceforward "totally discredited." "It is humiliating to France to have a man like him, who wallows in sex, and we have known this for quite some time now," he said.

The commentary wasn't appreciated by the Élysée, where officials repeated to no end throughout the day that "the president would demonstrate even greater commitment to his duties until the end by not becoming enmeshed in the controversy." In private, Sarkozy never deprived smaller groups of some mockery concerning Strauss-Kahn's reputation. Members who were invited by the head of state in May 2010 still remember hearing him say, in passing, that should the presidential contest be based on virtue, he would pass for a "Methodist pastor" compared to Strauss-Kahn.

François Hollande's bump

Nevertheless, the possible elimination of the IMF head from the race to the Élysée is not necessarily good news for Sarkozy. The representative from the district of Alpes-Maritimes, Lionnel Luca, summarized the state of mind that was prevailing at the head of the executive branch yesterday when he observed that, "real or false, this new, private affair concerning the director of the IMF puts him out of the race even before the primary elections of the Socialist Party," and that "contrary to what might be believed, it's not the left that will be the most disappointed!"

Indeed, Strauss-Kahn was considered by the Sarkozy camp as ultimately less of a threat than François Hollande, former head of the Socialist party. This weekend's events comforted the ex-first secretary of the Socialist Party, who appears as an archetypical "normal French" person compared to his principal rival on the left.

While waiting for the events to unfold, the leaders of the majority UMP nevertheless found some reasons to rejoice yesterday, though anonymously. Before Sarkozy's poll numbers began to drop, the battle between the presidential hopefuls on the right fascinated the media. The launch of the presidential campaign of Jean-Louis Borloo and the departure of the radical party from the UMP should have been viewed as a moment of internal melodrama for the majority. Instead, those events passed unnoticed, since all of the cameras were aiming at the Socialist Party. Clearly, they're not quite ready to turn away.

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