- Associated Press - Sunday, July 17, 2011

PARIS — To the world’s eyes, it’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s issues with women that seem the most likely obstacle to his return to French presidential politics.

But for his compatriots, an equally grave sin weighs him down: He’s rich — and not afraid to show it.

The French are famously indulgent of the sexual peccadilloes of the powerful. But flaunting wealth is a huge no-no, especially for a Socialist like Mr. Strauss-Kahn.

That means that if New York prosecutors drop the former International Monetary Fund chief’s sex-assault charges, he’ll still be in big trouble on two fronts.

First, there’s the attempted-rape case brought forward by a French writer that people here will take far more seriously than mere gossip about womanizing.

Then, there are the sightings of Mr. Strauss-Kahn getting into a friend’s Porsche or dining at an upscale restaurant after his release on bail — which have shocked France’s sense of decorum.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy succumbed to the temptation of wearing flashy watches and cavorting on yachts in the early stages of his presidency, and he was promptly dubbed president “bling-bling.” His support ratings never recovered.

The question of a presidential-campaign comeback for Mr. Strauss-Kahn was still being raised — albeit more quietly — days before the deadline of his Socialist Party to declare candidacies for its primary election in October.

But polls show emphatically that the French, at least for now, no longer want him to run.

Frederic Dabi, deputy director of Ifop France polling firm, says that Mr. Strauss-Kahn has lost a full 32 points in popularity since the start of his travails.

A poll published recently in the weekly Le Figaro Magazine suggested that 65 percent of the French don’t want to see Mr. Strauss-Kahn run for president, while only 35 percent do.

“This page has a good chance of closing … . Whatever the [judicial] outcome, there has been damage in public opinion,” Mr. Dabi said by telephone. “For many French, his image has been degraded … his rapport with money, with women, which poses lots of problems.”

France has not had a Socialist president since the 14-year reign of Francois Mitterrand, which ended in 1995, and the left desperately wants the Elysee Palace back in next year’s April-May elections.

They had a ready-made script for that in Mr. Strauss-Kahn: Topping all polls, he was seen as the Socialist savior who would combine formidable intellect with presidential aura to defeat conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and ride triumphantly into power.

That dream was upended when a hotel maid accused him of sexually assaulting her on May 14. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was forced to resign from his post as head of the International Monetary Fund after his arrest.

Top Socialist contenders for the party’s candidacy have said they would be willing to reset the calendar for the primary election to give Mr. Strauss-Kahn time to clear himself. However, officials are growing cautious.

“The political calendar cannot be indexed to the judicial calendar,” Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said on Europe 1 radio. “Today, the priority for DSK isn’t whether he will be a candidate in the primary or in the presidential election; it’s to defend himself.”

Mr. Strauss-Kahn was freed on his own recognizance on July 1 after the credibility of his accuser, an immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, was compromised by her lies about her past and about what she did in the moments after the purported attack at the Sofitel.

However, the charges were not dropped, and his passport has not been returned.

That theoretically could happen at any moment, but it wouldn’t have any sway on the new investigation in his own country: the resurrection of an eight-year-old episode in which a French writer, Tristane Banon, claims she was sexually assaulted while interviewing him.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it opened a preliminary investigation for attempted rape. The probe will determine whether the case should be pursued or dismissed. The three-year statute of limitations for sexual assault, a misdemeanor in France, expired long ago, while attempted rape has a 10-year limit under French law.

One of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys, Henri Leclerc, said that he has filed a slander complaint against Ms. Banon.

Today, all eyes are on Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, candidate by default to replace Mr. Strauss-Kahn, and Francois Hollande, a former party leader hoping to be anointed the candidate in October.

An Ifop poll published in Le Journal du Dimanche weekly showed Mr. Hollande in the best position to defeat Mr. Sarkozy.

While only 27 percent of those polled felt Mr. Aubry could defeat Mr. Sarkozy, 46 percent felt Mr. Hollande was up to the task. With 957 people polled, the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

“The Dominique Strauss-Kahn space is closed,” Ifop’s Mr. Dabi said.

Back in February, a poll by the Viavoice firm showed Mr. Strauss-Kahn with a 54 percent popularity rating — against 30 percent for Mr. Sarkozy.

An economist by training, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has had a political career of fits and starts, becoming a lawmaker in 1986 then losing the seat six years later.

However, he was named finance minister in 1997 by then-Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, raising his profile. He lost his bid to become Socialist Party presidential candidate in the 2006 primary to Segolene Royal.

There are those who continue to think that Strauss-Kahn could make a comeback — if cleared of all suspicion in New York and in Paris, and if that’s what he wants.

“For him, it’s a question of rebuilding himself before thinking of anything else,” one of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s closest political associates, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, told Le Figaro Magazine.

“The question to ask is whether he personally, intimately, after such an ordeal, would want to return to politics,” Strauss-Kahn biographer Michel Taubmann said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.

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