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Strauss-Kahn scents freedom but political comeback unlikely

With the sexual assault case against him on the point of collapse, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn could in theory return to frontline French politics, but no-one expects a return in force.

world Updated: Aug 23, 2011 08:05 IST

With the sexual assault case against him on the point of collapse, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn could in theory return to frontline French politics, but no-one expects a return in force.

New York prosecutors have asked the judge to dismiss all charges against Strauss-Kahn at a hearing on Tuesday, and he is expected to do so.

Even among the 62-year-old Socialist's most ardent admirers, few expect him to resurrect his campaign to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy in presidential elections next year, but some still want him to play a role in the national debate.

Experts and pollsters warn, however, that despite apparently prevailing in the case against him in New York he has seen his image indelibly tarnished and cannot but be a burden to the party he once yearned to lead.

The big guns of the Socialist Party have already begun a primary campaign to choose a champion to challenge Sarkozy and -- however cautious their words in public -- they would not welcome their former comrade back to the race.

Party leader Martine Aubry, rival Francois Hollande and former acolyte Manuel Valls all spoke of their "relief" that their comrade's ordeal was almost over -- but none called on him to rush back to the domestic fray.

"I don't think he can hope for a centre stage role in French politics now," said political scientist Gerard Grunberg of the prestigious Sciences-Po school in Paris, as New York prosecutors prepared their announcement.

"His public image is much deteriorated and the Socialist Party and its leaders must be mad at him for having missed this moment of opportunity. Neither the public nor the party want to see him back on the frontline."

Sarkozy's approval ratings are languishing in the low thirties, and if the Socialists could unite behind a credible candidate they have a good chance of unseating the right-winger over two rounds of voting in April and May.

But Strauss-Kahn's arrest, which forced him to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund, blew the Socialist field wide open. The opposition party now faces a divisive primary before it can train its guns on Sarkozy.

Even if the New York judge agrees to dismiss charges, and Strauss-Kahn is thus presumed innocent of trying to rape a New York hotel maid, the fact he had relations with her at all is seen as a serious error of judgement.

"I can't see him playing a major role," said Remi Lefebvre of the political science school at Lille University. "His image has been tarnished by all the revelations about his sex life and his material situation."

French voters have been shocked by revelations about Strauss-Kahn's luxury lifestyle and limitless cash almost as much as they have been by the multiple allegations of sexual adventures that have surfaced since his arrest.

"In the time frame of the primaries, there are only seven weeks left before the first round of voting, I can't see him having a big influence before that," added Lefebvre, ruling out Strauss-Kahn endorsing another party leader.

Strauss-Kahn still has supporters within his party, supporters which his rivals have been anxious to win over since his arrest, so fellow Socialist bigwigs have been cautious not to write him off callously.

Hollande, former party leader and front-runner for the nomination, has said he could imagine Strauss-Kahn playing a role in the upcoming campaign, but none of the candidates appear enthusiastic about his return.

"It will be complicated for him to rediscover the stature he had before the scandal," said Stephane Rozes, of pollster CAP.

"The French don't want to know anything about a politician's private life, specially his sex life, but once it's all laid out like it has been, de facto his presidential aura must be affected," he said.

Frederic Dabi, of polling firm IFOP, put numbers on the fall from grace.

"Between May and June he lost 30 points in the approval ratings," he said.

Even if Strauss-Kahn now sees himself as some kind of party elder, bringing advice from his experience as a formerly respected economist and finance minister and successful IMF chief, he has two problems.

Firstly, if he wants to play a role in any future Socialist administration he can hardly take the risk of backing only one of the half-dozen primary candidates at the risk of hurting his choice and offending the others.

Secondly, his legal woes may not yet be over: A young French writer, Tristane Banon, has filed a complaint alleging the he tried to rape her after luring her to an empty Paris bachelor flat in 2003. He denies this.

French prosecutors are to decide whether to charge him.