Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The End of a Presidential Candidacy

The spectacle of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs when he appeared at the court on Monday afternoon (French time), unshaven and wearing the same clothes that he was arrested in on Saturday night, has profoundly shocked France. The word most frequently used to describe these images and the treatment of DSK is “violent”. The decision of the judge to lock him up instead of granting bail is considered here as “brutal”. The French can’t understand how this treatment of an accused person of his standing can be consistent with the supposed presumption of innocence accorded to all.

I agree. New York revels in such exhibitions for the media and the higher the profile of the accused the better. In Manhattan they even inform the photographers when the accused is going to be taken from the police station to the court so that they can be ready for the “handcuff shot”! In many states in the USA the higher ranks of the police and the justice system are elected posts and you must always look to the next term of office!

There is, however, one advantage of the US justice system; compared to France it is relatively swift. Cases usually come to trial within weeks or months and are decided rapidly. In France, under the inquisitorial system in which a judge leads the investigation, high profile cases can take more than ten years to come to court whilst enquiries are made, evidence slowly assembled and, one sometimes suspects, whilst political aspects are being played out behind closed doors.  One of the scariest things about the French justice system is that even straightforward criminal cases often take three years to come to court and in the meantime the accused’s life is on hold while they wait, either on bail or in jail.

The UK has perhaps the best of both worlds. It has both a relatively swift justice system and much more protection for the accused before they come to trial. The media are constrained in what they can publish concerning the accusations and in many cases, where identification evidence is important, the accused is hidden from view in transit from prison to the court. This attempts to ensure that juries are not prejudiced by media reporting before court proceedings take place. In the special case of rape or sexual assault the accuser’s identity is protected for life and a debate continues concerning whether the accused should also have their identity protected until conviction.

Whatever the truth is about the alleged sexual assault by DSK, on a chambermaid at the Sofitel near Times Square, it effectively closes the book on any chance of him standing as a presidential candidate at the French Socialist Party primaries. These are scheduled to take place between 28th June and 13th July 2011 and there is no possibility that he could be cleared of all charges by then.

This has serious implications for French politics. For a long time now DSK has been topping the polls as the French people’s preferred socialist candidate for the 2012 Presidential Elections, well ahead of François Hollande, Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal. He has also been consistently ahead of Sarkozy in polls which measure second round voting intentions. Without DSK the Socialists are left with the likelihood of a Hollande vs Aubry run off for their primaries because Ségolène Royal is too far behind. It would be ironic if François Hollande is chosen and Ségolène Royal has to give him her support in 2012.  Ségolène got only half–hearted support from François Hollande (her partner of thirty years, who was Party Secretary at the time) for her presidential campaign in 2007 and as a consequence she was ill-prepared against Sarkozy. She split up with François Hollande in June 2007, a month after she lost the election. They had had four children together.

Against Hollande, Sarkozy would have a much greater chance than he would have done against DSK, but another scenario is possible.

Sarkozy is so low in the polls that he has been chasing the National Front vote, blatantly trying to take the UMP party to the right on issues like Immigration and National Identity. This has left the centre open for candidates like John-Louis Borloo to stand and split the centre right vote. If the voters decide that they have had enough of Sarkozy’s brand of politics, there may be a sufficient number of them prepared to vote for Marine Le Pen in the first round vote to take her through to the second round, where the top two candidates go head to head. If the second round is between Marine Le Pen and François Hollande I am sure that he would win and France would, after the long wait since Mitterrand, have another socialist President.

Although François Hollande lacks charisma, I think he would have more idea of how a President should behave than Sarkozy, and he has had many years of experience of managing and balancing political issues. France could do worse!


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