L’Affaire DSK: What’s next for French politics?

By Angus Bromhead

It has been a dramatic and trying week for politics in France, even by French standards. Before the indomitable Christine Lagarde even has the chance to establish her authority at the IMF, news arrives that the sexual assault allegations in New York against its former chief are likely to collapse.

The probable release of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) leaves the French voters, his allies and enemies in the French Socialist Party alike with unanswered questions. Is there a possibility that DSK could resuscitate his political career, and where does this leave the beleaguered socialist party? Even more pertinent is whether the DSK scandal will affect French views on how their politicians conduct their private and public lives.

It would be presumptuous and irresponsible to claim that DSK may be fully acquitted of his charges. Whilst the prosecution’s chief witness’ credibility might be faltering, this does not necessarily mean that there is no truth in the allegations. Furthermore, sexual assault accusations by the French author, Tristane Banon, will need further examination.

Despite this, French politicians seem to have uncanny talent for recovering from scandal. Take Jacques Chirac, for example, accused of corruption and smear attacks whilst in power and more recently, the current Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, who was successfully convicted in 2004 for abuse of public funds. It is therefore not inconceivable, however unlikely, that DSK could make a suitably theatrical return onto the French political stage. A recent poll by ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’ suggested that almost 50 percent of French voters would like to see DSK return to politics.

Meanwhile, time is swiftly running out for the dogged Socialist Party who, in wake of the vacuum left by DSK, look like they may have anywhere between three and five candidates. Nominations for the party primary supposedly close on the 13th July, with a possibility of extension dependant on the outcome of the DSK case.  The party seems without direction and ill-prepared to take advantage of Sarkozy’s unpopularity. The confusing political infighting highlights how crucial DSK had become to the socialist movement, which has now been powerless for over fifteen years since François Mitterrand was president.

DSK’s political dynamism, economic prowess and diplomatic experience served to unite the left and attract those on the centre disappointed with Sarkozy’s government. It is doubtful that the current socialist forerunners, Martine Aubry and François Hollande are in a position to do the same. This begs the question, will a fractured left in France benefit the far right, reflecting the run up to the 2006 election? Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National, has been quick to use the scandal to condemn and discredit DSK and others in the socialist party as members of an old political class.

Having discussed L’Affaire DSK with some French colleagues, it became clear that this episode could represent a significant shift in the manner in which France judges and ultimately chooses its politicians. The traditional view that a few shifty goings-on in a politician’s private life and a little political macho posturing can be excused, even encouraged, if it does not interfere with their capacity to work is becoming out-dated. Rightly so, the public nature of the DSK case has re-invigorated protests against machoism, sexism and harassment in France.  A women’s rights conference on Sunday highlighted that the publicity of the DSK case has meant that many women feel more able to report harassment in the workplace.

There is still a way to go before equality is achieved. The hope is that France can enter a new period of openness and its politicians are held accountable, and with their power should also come responsibilities. Whilst this statement may seem principled, too much openness could be just as destructive. A distinction must be made about what is in the public interest and a certain amount of sensitivity is needed. The public manner in which DSK was humiliatingly paraded in front of the world’s media by America’s judiciary challenged the assumption that in law you are innocent until proven guilty.

L’Affaire DSK has sent shockwaves through France and the full force of its fall out is yet to be felt.  France may well have lost a potential next president but its voters will feel more empowered to challenge unequal norms and galvanised to question their politicians. The Socialist Party still has time to mount a credible opposition and concentrate on its policies rather than its divisions. France is undergoing a major transition and if public figures are to survive they must respond to an electorate which will expect more, ask tougher questions and no longer tolerate aggressive, macho politics.


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