[update below] [2nd update below]
Le café de commerce. This is an essential French expression and which has no precise equivalent in English. It may be loosely translated as a discussion on a topic where people toss out half-baked opinions and/or just don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Discussions de café de commerce are a scourge and to be strenuously avoided, though, like engaging in fallacious reasoning, we all do it on occasion (albeit some more than others), even the smartest and best informed among us.
There have been a lot of discussions de café de commerce these days in regard to next year’s French presidential election, invariably driven by the latest poll numbers, and which have become a mini-torrent since the arrest of DSK and his sudden elimination as an eventual candidate. Cases in point include two pieces published on the Foreign Policy web site, one arguing that DSK’s demise is “great news” for Nicolas Sarkozy, another that the big losers could be French Muslims. Oh please, GMAB! This café de commerce is so smoke-filled that I’m suffocating! In point of fact, no one has any idea of how the DSK affair is going play out politically, of who will benefit and who won’t. One can make plausible arguments as to why Sarkozy may be smiling at DSK’s elimination and equally plausible arguments as to why he may be unhappy about it. One can argue that it will hurt the Socialists or that it may in fact help them. It’s all just idle speculation at this stage, i.e. the café de commerce. Handicapping a presidential race a year ahead of time—when we still don’t know who the candidates will be—is a futile waste of time, which is why I do not engage in the exercise, as much as I enjoy the horse race side of politics. It is an even greater waste of time when such a huge coup de théâtre as DSK’s arrest upends everything, blowing apart everyone’s assumptions and calculations.
Which doesn’t mean that I won’t engage in at least some speculation myself and make an assertion or two. One that I am fairly confident of: the Socialists will come out of this untarnished and will most certainly make it to the second round of the election. I rate the probability of this at 98.5%. Likewise for the candidate of the UMP. (Ergo: there will be no repeat of the 21 avril 2002, i.e. Marine Le Pen ain’t gonna make it to the second round; it won’t happen; I will elaborate on this at the opportune moment). The DSK affair reminds me of Gary Hart in 1987. He was the Democratic front-runner in the early stages of the ’88 race and the party’s best hope to take back the White House from the Republicans. No other presumptive Dem candidate at that point could rival him. Politically speaking, Hart was very similar to DSK: moderately left-of-center, with appeal to educated voters, yuppies, centrists, and independents—and with less of an appeal to working class voters (a problem)—; smart, intellectual, and with a mastery of economic policy; and with an overall modern persona (they were also similar in some non-political respects as well, as we know…). But then Donna Rice and the Monkey Business came along, which happened so suddenly and threw the Dems into momentary disarray (including myself, as I was a Hart supporter—and very much in the minority on this among my friends at the time). But the Dems recovered quickly and ended up with a decent field of candidates for the primaries. Michael Dukakis was a perfectly fine nominee and led a good campaign until the final two months, when he made a couple of crucial mistakes and it all came apart. But Bush Sr was going to win in ’88 in any case, even if Hart had behaved himself and been the nominee. No Democrat could have defeated the GOP that year.
The PS is clearly in a better situation for next year than the Dems were in ’88, in view of Sarkozy’s unpopularity (which I posted on a month ago) and the disorder within the UMP. The Socialists’ two presumptive front-runners—François Hollande and Martine Aubry—are well-known quantities, maintream moderate left, and both entirely credible as Président de la République. And the PS has a number of attractive, up-and-coming personalities in their 30s and 40s to assure the generational relève. There is, of course, the question of the PS’ program—of its ideological (in)coherence and confusion as to what the party stands for—, but this is hardly new for the French governmental left. And it won’t be redhibitory for the Socialists’ chances next year, i.e. it’s no big deal. As Sarkozy will be the first incumbent president running for reelection hors cohabitation since Giscard d’Estaing in ’81, the election will be all about him and his bilan. And also his personality. All the Socialists need is one or two ideas that can be made into pithy slogans. As to whether or not they’re credible, who cares? I’ll write more about the PS when its candidates for the party nomination are definitive (in mid-July).
UPDATE: There’s a poll just out by IPSOS on the political fallout of the DSK affair. It hasn’t changed a thing. The rapport de force between the parties is the same as before.
2nd UPDATE: Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a commentary on The National Interest web site, “Privacy, Libel and the Case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn” (the piece he links to from the Daily Mail is also worth reading, despite its polemical tone). One issue that could pose problems for the PS is its longtime omertà on DSK’s behavior. If even half the stories that are coming out about DSK are true—of his manifest satyriasis and behavior that bordered on sexual harassment, when it wasn’t the actual thing—, this should have disqualified him as a presidential candidate from the get go. All this was a secret de Polichinelle inside the PS (as well as outside of it) and for decades. If the PS was still prepared to make him its champion, well, they will need to explain this. La vie privée is one thing, sexual harassment is quite another.