Orphaned By Front-Runner Strauss-Kahn’s Melt-Down, French Socialists Still Favored To Beat Sarkozy In 2012 Presidential Election

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Much attention has understandably been focused around the world of late on the legal woes former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn faces in the U.S. Yet less has been directed to the question of how the fall of the man who had been the odds-on favorite to win the French presidential elections next year has affected the hopes of his Socialist Party to return to the Elysée for the first time since 1995. To the surprise of many observers, the answer has been “not too badly, so far”. Because rather than Strauss-Kahn’s implosion leaving hapless Socialists orphans of the one politician voters view as capable of beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, polls in the wake of DKS’s arrest show the primary contenders for the party’s presidential primary also likely to win the general election next spring.  The reason? If Strauss-Kahn had been the figure whose policies and talents voters were ready to actively flock to, remaining Socialists seeking the candidacy have swiftly become default choices for voters searching for other credible leftist options to five more years of Sarkozy.

“There’s such deep dissatisfaction, even revulsion with Sarkozy cutting across the political spectrum that even the shock of Strauss-Kahn’s fall hasn’t prevented voters from remaining politically pragmatic, and saying ‘Well, let’s choose from other Socialists still out there,” says Denis Muzet, president of the Paris-based Institut Médiascopie public opinion research group. “There’s wide-spread voter resentment with Sarkozy’s policies, leadership style, and lack of results. Even his personal behavior annoys and deeply offends a lot of people who feel he’s failed to live up to the standards of a French president.”Such sentiments have been growing with time, as even rightist voters joined leftist detractors in decrying Sarkozy’s “omni-presidency”, his intentionally divisive initiatives, suspicions of favoritism towards France’s mega-wealthy and members of his own family, and policy inconsistency that has produced meager results despite his loud and kinetic reform drive. All of that accelerated Sarkozy’s plummeting popularity that—combined with simulated election polls over the past year showing Strauss-Kahn trouncing the incumbent by double figures—led many pundits to suspect the president’s re-election hopes were virtually futile. Indeed, given DSK’s commanding lead over Sarkozy—as well as all other probable Socialist rivals for the party primary later this year—it’s hardly illogical that some observers had come to consider the 2012 race as not as one Strauss-Kahn would have to work hard to lose. Little did they know.

His New York arrest in May, of course, means Strauss-Kahn has propelled himself out of that contest before it even began. Yet despite the universal astonishment in France at seeing the favorite for the 2012 race vanish from it overnight, polls now indicate Strauss-Kahn’s dramatic exit is not benefiting Sarkozy as expected, with alienated conservative and centrists who had been backing DSK recoiling in horror over his behavior to their traditional rightist allegiances.  Instead, two Socialists considered front-runners for their party primary in the post-DSK era have seen their numbers edge up to the point where each must view one another—rather than Sarkozy—as their main competition for the Elysée just now.

Surveys conducted in the wake of DSK’s legal implosion find 63% of voters saying they still want the left to win in 2012. As part of the re-positioning to fill the void Strauss-Kahn has left, former Socialist chief François Hollande has seen support for his bid for the party’s candidacy surge slightly ahead of his successor and primary rival Martine Aubry. Though a handful of other Socialist hopefuls are also running for the spot (including 2007 candidate, Ségolène Royal), most are so outdistanced by the leading pair that the real fight for the primary—and perhaps Elysée—seems slimmed down to Hollande and Aubry. Recent simulated elections find both Aubry and Hollande beating Sarkozy handily no matter what other combination potential candidates from other conservative, centrist, and leftist parties are factored in or out.  And while neither candidates’ numbers come close to the huge lead Strauss-Kahn had in polls before his world collapsed, both enjoy the status of leading default options to another five years of Sarkozy—for the time being, anyway.

“The enormous expectations of a Strauss-Kahn victory created a political speculative bubble—fueled over time by irrational exuberance—which was equally huge when it exploded, but which has not yet had the impact on politics that many expected,” Muzet explains. “People are watching his private drama on one side, and evaluating the candidacy of Aubry and Hollande in Strauss-Kahn’s absence on the other. And they generally like what they see. But that’s still occurring within a considerably anti-Sarkozy atmosphere that favors his main rivals. Sooner or later the person who becomes the Socialist candidate must convince voters they’re offering a firm, positive leadership option to Sarkozy, and aren’t just running as a kind of place-holder opposite him. Eventually, they’ll have to earn and justify the lift above Sarkozy they’re largely getting now relative to his own deep unpopularity.”

Agrees a French political strategist currently involved in informal contacts with potential centrists presidential candidates: “Sarkozy is so far down that in order to bounce back up he needs Hollande or Aubry to make the mistake of positioning themselves as champions of the ‘true left’, rather than as pragmatic progressive who will represent and unify all voters from a center-left. I don’t think he can win unless the eventual Socialist candidate manages to alienate or frighten voters back toward Sarkozy by veering too far left.”

Sarkozy’s public opinion troubles indeed seem formidable against enduringly low approval ratings that have dipped to record lows. A recent survey showed Sarkozy’s 20% nadir in April rose in June—to just 22%, while a contrasting 72% of people said they had no confidence in his leadership. Conservative strategists have long pooh-poohed the president’s poor numbers, predicting support will return as Sarkozy–a peerless campaign animal–launches his re-election bid in earnest, and begins energetically defending his record in office. Other supporters look forward to the pugnacious president unleashing his formidable tongue on the stump as he slashes the personalities and policies of rivals once parties have designated their candidates.

However, that kind of pugilistic professionalism may not be as much help to Sarkozy as imagined given prevailing voter attitudes that have soured on the kind of elitist behavior and swagger of the country’s powerful (and often wealthy) political class—and which Strauss-Kahn’s behavior and ritzy response to his legal problems have accentuated. “Sarkozy is viewed as an admiring political friend and ally of privileged France, and even his billionaire heiress wife (Carla Bruni) generates a significant degree of public disapproval that only adds to that reputation,” says Muzet. “Hollande and Aubry, by contrast, are regarded as simpler, more modest, and closer to the people, which is something they’ll want to build on—but probably find very difficult to do given their own history and position within the political elite.”

Indeed, Muzet warns it’s too early to rule a disastrous Socialist campaign or masterful Sarkozy comeback out. Anything can happen in the 11 long months before the elections. Still, history suggests the mightily unpopular Sarkozy has his work cut out for him. In 1987, President François Mitterrand’s approval rating was 63%–nearly triple Sarkozy’s current level–yet he just barely won re-election the following year (the last time a Socialist claimed the presidency). In 2001, conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac suffered a lowly 45% approval score—and might well have lost in the second round of polling had voters across the political spectrum not united behind him in response to extreme-right wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s coup in qualifying for the run-off. In 1980, meanwhile, centrist President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s approval rate stood at a comparatively decent 53%–and he lost his re-election bid to Mitterrand.

“Everything today suggests Sarkozy has very little chance of being re-elected,” the political adviser says. “But only a month ago, everything suggested Strauss-Kahn was virtually certain to become president in 2012. Unexpected things can happen in politics—sometimes quite dramatic fashion.”