The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on Saturday in New York has had the effect of a political cataclysm in France.
Opposition leader Martine Aubry, one of DSK’s closest allies, described the news as a “thunderbolt” on Sunday.
This quickly turned into a hurricane when the world saw one of its most powerful figures led handcuffed to New York’s most notorious jails. In a year of leadership on the international stage, France has taken a hit.
What does this mean for the French Presidential election, due to take place on May 6 2012 ?
France has almost certainly lost its frontrunner. The last polls put DSK 19 points ahead of incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of next spring’s election.
Although DSK had not explicitly declared his intentions, his candidacy had become obvious and desired by many, as his advance in the poll grew and settled in the last 18 months. DSK was set to declare his candidacy on June 28.
His charisma, intellect and experience were powerful qualities against President Sarkozy, currently struggling against rock bottom approval ratings of just 25%.
Today, DSK’s spectacular fall from grace seems inevitable.
It has been compared to “21 April”, the day in 2002 when far right candidate Jean Marie Le Pen qualified for the second round of the Presidential election.
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was dumped into third place and dumped out of the contest. He was less than one percentage point behind Le Pen.
This triggered one of the biggest traumas in French politics and the history of the country’s Left. The PS seems now as traumatised as it was back then.
DSK’s expected candidacy has been shaping the political landscape and alliances in France for months.
All is now being shaken up.
The primary of the PS, due to take place in October, suddenly appears exciting again. A race is now underway for other candidates to try to build the same political powerbase enjoyed by DSK.
Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille, has lead the party firmly since 2007.
She and ex Premier Laurent Fabius had agreed a pact not to stand in the race – to give DSK a clear run.
Now, though, all bets could be off and they may throw their hats into the ring.
François Hollande, former head of the PS, is another contender.
His popularity has recently soared in the polls and he is polishing a profile as an alternative to DSK – a modern, economics-savvy social-democrat, but coming from the heart of the French terroir, not the high spheres of Washington.
One outsider could be Pierre Moscovici who previously has said he would not run if DSK did.
There is also Manuel Valls, a dynamic 40-year-old Franco-Spanish mayor of the suburban city of Evry, who could well create a surprise.
But DSK’s crisis could also create a void in the centre of French politics. He appealed to the centre and centre right – almost a fifth of the electorate – much more than any other socialist.
Moderate conservative politicians, disappointed by President Sarkozy, could jump on the bandwagon.
This is not good news for the President, who must reduce the number of candidates from the centre-right that could glean votes. Otherwise, he could face the horror of failing to survive the first round because he could garner too few votes.
This possibility has emerged in several polls. It is very real, and fuelled by the threat posed on Sarkozy’s right by the National Front’s new leader, Marine Le Pen.
The Sunday newspapers gave Marine Le Pen and Francois Hollande 23% each and President Sarkozy just 22%. On that reading, the President would be knocked out in round one.
Marine Le Pen has positioned herself as a strong critic of DSK, and she may well also cash in on his fall from grace.
The shadow of DSK’s trial could poison France’s Presidential campaign. It has completely reshuffled the campaign of the PS and modified the country’s political landscape, one year before the election.
France’s global image is at stake and many hope for a quick trial – whether DSK is found guilty or innocent.
Above all, the French Left must avoid being tainted by the DSK crisis for too long if it is to stand any chance of winning in 2012.
The race is now on, and has never been more open.
Alex Margot-Duclot is a Senior Account Executive at Portland. He has gained political experience campaigning for the French Parti Socialiste in France and abroad.