Strategy

IMF head has his heart in Paris

From his perch in Washington, Strauss–Kahn prepares for a run at Sarkozy.

In politics, as in Hollywood, everyone loves a comeback. Last month’s G20 meetings in Paris brought into tighter focus the ambitions of International Monetary Fund chief, and failed 2006 French presidential candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn to run in that country’s next election as the Socialist party candidate. After gaining widespread plaudits for his leading role in the IMF’s management of Europe’s debt troubles, speculation about the political future of the former French finance minister has risen to a low boil in recent months. Reports that Strauss-Kahn’s wife doesn’t want him to seek a second IMF term after his current stint expires in September, coupled with overwhelmingly positive numbers in French polls, puts the 61-year-old in an enviable dilemma: stay with the lofty Washington-based IMF post, or pursue a presidential candidacy as an overwhelming favourite. Many expect the 61-year-old to declare his intentions after the upcoming G8 meeting in Deauville, France, this May. But as the spotlight intensifies on his seemingly inevitable candidacy, does Strauss-Kahn risk overplaying his hand and turning off both the IMF and French voters? As head of the IMF, Strauss-Kahn isn’t allowed to comment directly on French politics, but he came pretty close during a Paris G20 press conference, addressing issues that would appear to be of more interest to French voters than the content of the international economic gathering. “What matters is what happens to the man in the street who is looking for a job, can’t find one, has trouble paying his electricity bills,” said Strauss-Kahn on French television. “Looking at real life, that’s what will help Europe recover.”

Gerard Grunberg, a professor at the Political Sciences Institute in Paris told Bloomberg that Strauss-Kahn achieved his two goals for the Paris visit. “Make sure nobody doubts anymore that he will be a candidate for the French presidential race in 2012 while never saying it. And make crystal clear that he is a man of the left, a real socialist.” University of Montreal political science professor Martial Foucault says Strauss-Kahn could learn a lesson from the past. “Like Mitterrand in 1988, Strauss-Kahn could adopt the winning strategy of declaring himself a candidate as late as possible.”

Things may be looking pretty good for Strauss-Kahn right now — a mid-February CSA institute poll suggested he would defeat Sarkozy in the final presidential round by 61% to 39% of the vote — but some analysts suggest that shine could rub off over the course of an election. Foucault says French socialists are waiting for Strauss-Kahn to talk about issues like unemployment, multiculturalism and pensions with a socialist tone. Indeed, even his newly elevated profile won’t entirely dispel the challenges that bedeviled his failed 2006 bid, namely the Socialist Party’s wide swath of voters. “The big challenge is not how to beat Sarkozy,” says Foucault. “But rather to find an equilibrium between radical socialist voters and left-right center voters.” Meantime, as the IMF continues its call for an overhaul of the global monetary system, Strauss-Kahn remains defiantly ambiguous about his plans for the future. As he told a TV interviewer, “The more I’m in France, the better it is…[though] frankly, I have a job. I have no time to think of something else.”