Paris -- The apparent self-destruction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a New York hotel is emblematic of a European left that has ceased to be much of a progressive alternative, either in terms of lifestyle or policy alternatives. Strauss-Kahn, who until yesterday headed the International Monetary Fund, was the Socialist front-runner to challenge French President Nicolas Sarkozy next year. Polls showed that Strauss-Kahn well ahead of both Sarkozy and far right populist Marine Le Pen.
But even before this latest scandal broke, Strauss-Kahn didn't seem like much of a socialist. Last week, the press caught DSK, as the local press calls him, and his wife tooling around in a borrowed $150,000 Porsche, which reinforced his image as wealthy playboy. In 2008, Strauss-Kahn barely survived a widely publicized affair with one of his IMF employees, and in the wake of the New York incident, another woman has stepped forward claiming a rape in 2002.
Cynics here have argued that the wily Sarkozy promoted his likely rival for the IMF post to increase the chances that the imperious Strauss-Kahn would commit some highly visible and politically fatal act. For demolishing the Socialists' claim to speak for the common Frenchman and woman, it's hard to beat an accusation of the entitled Socialist standard bearer orally raping a chambermaid in a $3,000 luxury hotel room and then trying to skip town.
The last successful French socialist president, the dignified Francois Mitterrand, was known as la force tranquille (the quiet strength.) After the Porsche photos surfaced, Strauss-Kahn was instantly dubbed la Porsche tranquille. Mitterrand did not have a lavish lifestyle. He did discretely keep a mistress. They had a daughter together, whom Mitterrand acknowledged and faithfully visited. Among French leaders, this passes for personal probity.
French voters are increasingly sick of Sarkozy, whose cheesy behavior and deep cuts in French social benefits have led to a search for alternatives. But even before this episode, Strauss-Kahn looked like nothing so much as a faux-left version of Sarkozy. The latest outrage leaves voters to feel that elites, regardless of professed party identity, serve mainly themselves, their own megalomania, tawdry materialism and sense of invulnerability.
The larger casualties of this mess include the French Socialist Party, a more progressive IMF, and the credibility of public officials and institutions in general.
For all his personal flaws, Strauss-Kahn, in his current job as head of the International Monetary Fund, has been less of an austerity-monger than most of his predecessors. That's a pretty low bar, but under Strauss-Kahn and his chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, the IMF has uncharacteristically weighed in on the side of not punishing nations with large deficits, but helping them to grow their way out of recession.
With Strauss-Kahn sidelined and probably finished, the IMF has appointed an American, John Lipsky, a career official, as acting managing director. Strauss-Kahn, as a French Socialist, had been leaning against the IMF austerity culture, and Lipsky is considered more orthodox.
The impact on the Socialist Party is also considered grim, but perhaps that's premature. Two of Strauss-Kahn's rivals for the nomination are themselves a former couple, ex party leader Francois Hollande and former presidential nominee Segolene Royal, who lost the election to Sarkozy in 2007. A third is Martine Aubry, the current party leader, who had dropped out of the race in favor of Strauss-Kahn but may now re-enter. Some of the French socialists whom I interviewed said that the erratic and arrogant Strauss-Kahn was a political time bomb, and that Hollande or Aubry had a better shot at beating Sarkozy. But this was hardly a good day for the French Socialist Party.
The pity is that the French electorate remains left of center. France has dozens of effective socialist mayors. When political preferences are de-linked from the flawed personalities of national leaders, the French electorate is more likely to support the left. But the combination of weak and squabbling Socialist party chiefs, the fragmentation of the French left into Socialists, Greens, and the further left Front de Gauche, and the quirks in the French electoral system which requires a runoff if no candidate gains a majority, the final two candidates next year could well be the far-right Marine Le Pen versus Sarkozy as the moderate.
Strauss-Kahn's reckless and grandiose personal behavior is symptomatic of a deeper sickness afflicting the European left. It isn't just that people like Strauss Kahn flaunt their wealth, but that they share the financial outlook of the wealthy.
The world suffered a financial collapse in 2008 because deregulation had allowed the banking system to crash the economy. So-called "center-left" parties were complicit in this deregulation, whether under Bill Clinton in the United States, Gerhardt Schroeder in Germany, or Tony Blair in the UK. In France, Mitterrand began as a left-socialist and ended as more of a neo-liberal.
It's small wonder that confused voters, looking for alternatives to the party of collapse and austerity, are skeptical of social democrats. In a world where national leaders have all the dignity and character of a Sarkozy or a Berlusconi, it would be splendid of the left stood for something better. But politics in general seems a mix of high life and lowlife, regardless of party, while daily existence for regular people becomes more of a trial.
In much of Europe, the left doesn't offer a persuasive opposition strategy or program.
(An exception is Denmark, where the social democrats are favored to win the year's election, which would make the dynamic Helle Thorning-Schmidt Denmark's first woman prime minister.)
But for the most part, an ideological failure to stand clearly for something different tends to produce unconvincing leaders.
You still see Obama bumper stickers in Paris, where the U.S. president remains highly popular. Barack Obama not only still stands for hope, but he represents a striking contrast to both Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn in his irreproachable personal behavior. But with the world still in financial crisis, that's also a low bar. By itself, personal rectitude does little to rally public support of to solve deep national ills.
I suppose we Americans can take pride that our president has never been accused of assaulting a chamber maid in a luxury hotel. Now, if he would just assault the financial barons.