Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Who Dat?

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Former IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn voted Sunday afternoon for Martine Aubry in the first round of the Socialist presidential primary, in Sarcelles, France, on October 09, 2011. (Photo: Mousse / Abaca)

As French Socialist heavyweights Martine Aubry and François Hollande gear up for their Oct. 16 run-off in the contest to select the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, other leftist leaders have joined media pundits to hail the enormous public interest and enthusiasm generated by a primary process whose success was anything but assured. Despite warnings from conservative critics the effort would be a yawn-fest decided by underhanded internal party intrigue the public would roundly ignore, around 2.5 million people turned out to cast ballots in the Oct. 9 first-round of polling—a considerable mobilization for a party boasting about 200,000 official members. Similarly, a cumulative audience of over 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the three televised TV debates between the primary’s six leftist contenders; Wednesday night’s final confrontation between the finalists is expected to draw that many on its own. None of those are small achievements in a country where plunging faith in the political class has led to steep declines in voter participation in elections over the past decade.

But perhaps the biggest reflection of just how serious and focused attention on the Socialist Party (PS) primary and its participants has been is the sudden and nearly complete absence of the person previously considered a shoe-in to win it: former International Monetary Fund honcho Dominique Strauss-Kahn. With the media and public fully honed in on the primary’s unfolding since October began, DSK couldn’t have bought himself a headline nor borrowed one from the field of PS presidential hopefuls if he’d wanted to. But chances are the former favorite for the French presidency has been just as happy with his sudden anonymity has his Socialist peers are to finally be rid of the scandal taint that frequent associations with DSK’s plight carried. After months of the Socialist primary having often been examined in terms of “what if” scenarios regarding Strauss-Kahn, France’s media and public are finally ignoring the man who could have been president, and getting excited about the other Socialists who might yet be.

Given the months of worldwide obsession with DSK’s plight, it’s astonishing just how rapidly French Socialists and interested voters have turned that page of controversy and recrimination to get on with the serious business of choosing a candidate to confront incumbent conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections next spring. In doing so, the formerly omnipresent shadow of Strauss-Kahn—whether as a former front-runner, respected political mind, influential economic expert, or accused womanizer and the center of an enormous sex scandal—has rapidly vanished from above the Socialist ranks as primary contenders and voters alike have pushed ahead with matters at hand. That, too, was no small achievement by the little-primary-that-could: despite nearly six-months of frenetic media coverage of the DSK affair(s)—which at times threatened to permanently relegate the Socialist contest to a back-page after-thought staged by a gaggle of second-string nobodies seeking to fill Strauss-Kahn’s gigantic shoes—contenders somehow managed to redirect the French public’s gaze to their proposals for taking France in a new, post-Sarkozy and post-Strauss-Kahn direction. That latter detail is very significant, given the enormous space Strauss-Kahn had occupied in the French public’s mind the man seemingly destined to be entrusted with managing the nation’s future. It’s worth noting that a check of Monday’s French press—which was largely filled with results of Sunday’s first round primary voting—only contained one mention of DSK, and even that was limited to a single quote amid a series of reactions to polling by French politicians.

True, Strauss-Kahn is no longer at center stage, yet his sub-bit part amid the primary bustle is also a reflection of how the formerly DSK-dominated left has fully gotten over its former hero. For months before his May 14 arrest in New York, poll after poll projected Strauss-Kahn beating all rivals in the first round of April, 2012 presidential polling, then thrashing Sarkozy by nearly 30% in the second round in early May. But after his indictment on attempted rape charges rendered DSK’s participation in the Socialist primary—not to mention the presidential election—unthinkable, the question for the left immediately became a somewhat panicked “what happens now?” Socialist rivals may have been willing to contest Strauss-Kahn in the primary, but virtually no one actually believed they’d prevent him from easily winning the candidacy before strolling into the Elysée. His demise was a change of scenario indeed.

In some cases, answers to “what now?” came from Socialist hopefuls themselves—particularly Hollande, who launched his bid early on to challenge the formidable Strauss-Kahn from almost an identical, center-leaning position. “François Hollande was a primary candidate when DSK was the favorite, and he’s still a candidate now that DSK is out,” said Socialist official Malek Boutih following DSK’s arrest. Polls then supplied further answers—showing both Hollande and Aubry also beating Sarkozy in simulated elections. It was in part that evidence that ultimately led Aubry to throw her hat in the primary ring in July after initially deciding to stay out of the contest in accordance with a pact she’d concluded with Strauss-Kahn to improve his chances of capturing the Elysée. Yet despite the persistently encouraging polling numbers for both Hollande and Aubry, the comparative question long dogged the French left: could the eventual Socialist candidate rise to Strauss-Kahn’s level convince French voters they had sufficient presidential stature to replace Sarkozy?

Now those doubts appear to be past, and French perceptions about presidential stature have evolved, with Aubry and Hollande looking increasingly presidentiable as Strauss-Kahn appeared less so.Indeed, by September, polls showed  a large majority of people scowling at the theoretical idea of DSK deciding to participate in the Socialist primary after all. Nearly two-thirds of people in similar polls, meanwhile, said Strauss-Kahn say out of the presidential election process in any capacity. Another 76% of people said Strauss-Kahn’s case in no way changed their view of the Socialist Party, or influenced its primary. And yet, his mere status as the man many people considered Sarkozy’s inevitable replacement left DSK looming large enough to consistently over-shadow the primary in one manner or another—or at least act as a major distraction.

That was seen yet again Sept. 18 during his first interview after returning to France, when Strauss-Kahn’s acknowledged he’d forged a pact with Aubry—an avowal that immediately produced charges that Aubry was merely a “replacement” candidate without sufficient desire to seek the French presidency on her own. (Positive comments about Aubry that the now-suspect DSK made in the same interview were dubbed by some pundits “the kiss of death”.) Since then, however, the primaries and French public attention have moved on. The quality of debates and longer-term stakes involved have helped propel primary candidates to center stage, and relegated Strauss-Kahn to something of a memory about the man who could have been—perhaps even should have been—but never was. Their success in getting the French to forget about Strauss-Kahn and focus on Socialists who may become PS candidate are a major achievement of the current primaries. So, too, has been their success in forcing conservatives—including a clearly piqued Sarkozy—to deride and attack the Socialist contest in the hopes of drawing some attention back to the right. Clearly, DSK isn’t the only French political leader vulnerable of being left behind as the Socialist primary parade moves on.