If Dominique Strauss-Kahn is tempted to make an early exit from the International Monetary Fund to run for president of France, he will have found plenty of encouraging signs during a stay in Paris this week.
The next election is not until 2012 and Strauss-Kahn would have many hurdles to overcome before even getting his name on a ballot paper, but a spate of favourable opinion polls put him at the centre of political attention during his flying visit.
“It's always nice to find that your compatriots are fond of you, but that is not my focus today,” Strauss-Kahn said in an interview published by the newspaper Le Figaro on Wednesday, declining to comment on a possible presidential bid.
Conveniently for Strauss-Kahn, IMF rules prevent him from speaking about French politics. This makes it easy for him to play a waiting game, biding his time to see what the other players do before deciding whether to take a dangerous gamble.
A CSA poll published on Nov. 6 suggested that the Socialist Strauss-Kahn could beat right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy in a run-off in 2012 by 51 percent to 49 percent. He was the only opposition figure who stood a chance, according to the poll.
But his term as managing director of the IMF runs until October 2012, several months after the election, so he would have to quit his job early — a plan that could go horribly wrong if he failed to clinch the Socialist Party ticket.
It is a very real fear for Strauss-Kahn, who was trounced by Segolene Royal in Socialist primaries in 2006. She went on to lose to Sarkozy in the May 2007 presidential election, and in November that year Strauss-Kahn went to the IMF.
It was a risky career move for the former economy minister, as the Fund was abhorred by many French voters who saw it as a bastion of American-style free market orthodoxy.
But the global financial crisis changed all that. By steering the IMF through the turmoil of 2008 and 2009, advocating fiscal stimulus rather than budget cuts, Strauss-Kahn gained not only worldwide prestige but credibility at home.
“Faced with a crisis that the French public feels on a daily basis, Strauss-Kahn's competence on economic matters is more and more appreciated,” said Francois Miquet-Marty, head of the Viavoice polling firm that has charted his rising popularity.
Strauss-Kahn has also benefitted from being removed from the daily hustle and bustle of French political life.
“Maybe they like me so much because I am far away,” he acknowledged on Canal+ television on Wednesday.
While he has been flying around the world for face-time with the likes of U.S. President Barack Obama or Chinese President Hu Jintao, Royal and other Socialist rivals have been bogged down in an interminable series of internal party squabbles.
Their disputes have exasperated many voters and by staying out of the fray, Strauss-Kahn has come to appear as a potential saviour who could jet in from Washington and take on Sarkozy.
The danger for Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings have been hit by disputed reforms and scandals in his own camp, is that a certain category of moderate centre-right voters who are disappointed with him could switch allegiance to Strauss-Kahn.
A typical example is retired secretary Francoise Moreau, who voted for Sarkozy in 2007 but has been put off by what she sees as his confrontational style and exaggerated boasts.
“If Strauss-Kahn is a candidate in 2012, I will definitely vote for him. I don't like any of the other Socialists, but he is an intelligent and competent man,” she said.
Before competing with Sarkozy, Strauss-Kahn would have to face the Socialist primaries and there is no guarantee that he would win as parts of the Socialist electorate, especially young people, see him as not far enough to the left.
“The primaries will be a major crash test for him,” said pollster Miquet-Marty.
“If he decides to go for it, he will have to get down into the ring with the others, thus losing his unique status and exposing himself to criticism. A return to French politics could turn out to be extremely bruising,” he said.
He has a fearsome reputation as a ladies' man, exacerbated by a high profile affair with an IMF colleague, that rivals might try to exploit. He may also struggle to persuade grassroot Socialists that his heart is still anchored to the left.
For now, he is saying little, leaving others to promote him.
Newspapers Le Monde and Liberation put him on their front pages this week and ran lengthy articles analysing his every move. Liberation called him “the incognito candidate” and some Socialist heavyweights also made encouraging noises.
“I think Dominique Strauss-Kahn is one of the few people who have the stature to be president,” former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius told Canal+.