It’s long been speculated that when France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy tapped rival Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn to head the International Monetary Fund in 2007, the conservative leader was cynically giving his expected rival for the 2012 presidential election just the right length of rope with which to hang himself. Indeed, given Strauss-Kahn’s reputation among French political insiders as a relentless, even reckless, womanizer, observers have long assumed Sarkozy’s decision to send Strauss-Kahn to Washington was pure political calculation: place the popular but libidinous Socialist at the head of a starchy international organization — based in the puritanical U.S. to boot — and just wait for the inevitable sexual scandal to explode and bring him down. Despite one earlier near-miss, the fatal uproar that ended Strauss-Kahn’s career burst from a New York City hotel suite on May 14, 2011 — just (some commentators have said) as Sarkozy had planned.
Or just possibly not. A new book by two French journalists suggests not only that Sarkozy was far less Machiavellian in dispatching Strauss-Kahn to Washington than many people reckoned, but in fact was among many politicians who long figured Strauss-Kahn would never risk the revelations and public disgrace that would certainly result from him making a presidential run. In Les Strauss-Kahn, Le Monde reporters Raphaëlle Bacqué and Ariane Chemin depict politicians on the left and right alike as viewing Strauss-Kahn as so sexually heedless — and cut off from reality — that many dismissed polls in 2010 and 2011 showing Strauss-Kahn as likely to win the 2012 presidential race as being beside the point.
“You know very well that Dominique can’t be President,” the book quotes Sarkozy repeatedly soothing advisers troubled by Strauss-Kahn’s rising voter popularity.
The conservative President wasn’t the only person who viewed Strauss-Kahn’s sexual behavior as leaving him far too vulnerable to risk a run for the Élysée. “Above all, don’t make him run in the presidential elections,” the book quotes Strauss-Kahn’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette, telling her former husband’s mind trust. “You know about all his problems!”
In their investigation, Bacqué and Chemin generally divide figures into two distinct camps. In one are backers and intimates who view Strauss-Kahn as so clearly destined for greatness that their deference makes them passive enablers of his self-destructive carousing. In the other are foes, pundits and political peers who regard Strauss-Kahn’s sexual proclivities as his own unsavory business — but a fatal weakness that would forever prevent him from being a credible presidential contender.
“Let’s keep this to ourselves, all right?” the book quotes Sarkozy — then Interior Minister — allegedly speaking to a top police official in 2006 after a beat cop had undertaken an identity check on Strauss-Kahn during an orgy with prostitutes in a string of parked cars in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne. Despite what the book calls his “uncontrollable, throaty laugh” at hearing that news, Sarkozy’s discreet reaction to it wasn’t the last time he tried to protect Strauss-Kahn from himself. After his election in the following year and picking Strauss-Kahn for the IMF post, Sarkozy gave the departing Strauss-Kahn stern advice about controlling his impulses in the U.S.
“Be very careful — they don’t joke about this sort of thing, [and] your life will be examined under a magnifying glass,” Sarkozy has been quoted telling Strauss-Kahn, using a veiled Clintonian reference to impress his point. “Avoid being alone with interns. France can’t afford a scandal.”
However, France and the world got just that. The first jolt came with revelations in 2008 that Strauss-Kahn had carried on an affair with a Hungarian economist under his direction at the IMF. The big blast followed in 2011, with his New York arrest on sexual-assault and attempted-rape charges. Multiple legal inquiries related to Strauss-Kahn’s carnal activities have since followed.
So why didn’t those close to him ever intervene and challenge Strauss-Kahn to rein in his sexual proclivities? On the one hand, Bacqué and Chemin suggest, many of his closest advisers and admirers also invested their own interests in what they saw as the great man’s fated rise to supreme power. That, the authors say, led those backers by turns to act as yes-men and elsewhere to cluck at Strauss-Kahn’s relentless womanizing as a peculiarity that they couldn’t resolve — and which in any case, wouldn’t derail his inevitable march to the Élysée.
The book shows other intimates — including Strauss-Kahn’s wife, journalist Anne Sinclair — as deeply divided in dealing with both his behavior and surging presidential expectations. For one, they were angered by Strauss-Kahn risking his political career and personal reputation. However, those same people at times are depicted as calmly resigned to the idea that Strauss-Kahn’s behavior would make a presidential bid totally impossible — and therefore no longer anything to get too upset about.
One politician who shared Sarkozy’s early conviction that — despite the flattering polls — Strauss-Kahn was not a serious presidential contender was fellow Socialist and eventual winner of the 2012 election, François Hollande. Indeed, though many observers began viewing Strauss-Kahn as a shoo-in for the Élysée by mid-2010, Hollande announced his decision in early 2011 to challenge the mighty Strauss-Kahn and win the Socialist primary for himself. History — and Strauss-Kahn’s career-ending arrest in New York — proved Hollande’s pledge to be prescient indeed.
However, unlike Sarkozy, Hollande was convinced Strauss-Kahn was unelectable on ideological grounds. In Hollande’s view, the wealthy, jet-setting, high-living Strauss-Kahn shared far too many of the “bling-bling” penchants that caused Sarkozy’s popularity rating to plummet. As such, Hollande regarded Strauss-Kahn as just as irreparably cut off from the reality of voters who’d be electing France’s next President as Sarkozy was — an analysis that gave rise to Hollande’s victorious positioning as a “normal” candidate.
But if normality held the key to the Élysée, self-destructive sexual penchants apparently make better book fodder. Bacqué and Chemin’s Les Strauss-Kahn is expected to enter French best-seller lists at the very top.