Stealing the thunder
For months President Nicolas Sarkozy has held out on officially declaring his intention to seek re-election in the now fast approaching 2012 presidential elections -with no apparent good reason. Perhaps his silence was meant to build up suspense, to wait for the moment when the announcement would create the largest splash in the media, or most destabilize his opponents in the Socialist Party camp. In the end, the announcement came and went, and the French hardly noticed.
It happened at his ruling UMP party's "Summer School" conference, which I traveled to the city of Marseille to cover. Sarkozy did not attend the event, so it was party chief François Copé who was charged with belting the battle cry. He did, and got the expected response from the few thousand UMP supporters at the conference center. That was about it.
The Marseille conference and the campaign launch were supposed to be the day's big headlines. It was what all the French were supposed to be talking about on Monday when they went back to school and back to work. Instead they are all talking about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who prosecutors in New York said was un-prosecutable, and who has come home.
The French are now debating the perplexities of the American justice system so different from their own, they are accepting they'll never know if Strauss-Kahn tried to rape a hotel maid, they are wondering if he will dare return to politics.
And what do they think about Nicolas Sarkozy's daring stab at another mandate?
For all the Fuss, getting official statements to Strauss-Kahn's homecoming from politicians was like trying to squeeze milk out of a dry cow pie. To their credit, the UMP has mostly kept its nose out of the mess from the beginning, but Socialists are potentially facing a real liability with campaigning underway.
One thing I’ve learned from the Strauss-Kahn affair is that it’s unwise to predict what direction it will take next. So nothing more on that.
But for all the headaches Strauss-Kahn could give his fellow Socialists in the future, he did bring one gift for them from New York. He stole Sarkozy's thunder at a key moment.
In Marseille, the UMP's Copé blasted the media for all the attention it had already given Strauss-Kahn's return. Fishing for reactions from rank-and-file members, I found one retired school teacher who said she was sure Strauss-Kahn planned his return to France to get as much attention as possible. “It's indecent,” she told me, before scolding journalists like myself for biting at the bait.
But a local UMP councilman, Gilles Phocas from the city of Meze, admitted the media frenzy was deserved. “After all, before the arrest, he was the frontrunner in the elections,” he reminded with a very fitting shoulder shrug.