French presidency in crisis and a neurotic need for heroes means DSK won’t go away

Dominique Strauss-Kahn at Cannes last year. EPA/Ian Langsdon

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is back. On Thursday May 16 he took a major part in a prime-time documentary about the Euro – where he criticised Nicolas Sarkozy’s response to the 2008-9 economic crisis.

The following day, Welcome to New York, a film about his arrest after allegations of sexual assault in the city’s Sofitel hotel, was shown at Cannes at the festival fringe. The film, starring Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, which was made available online on a pay-per-view basis, gathered 48,000 views in its first 24 hours.

Anne Sinclair, his ex-wife, is furious and DSK is suing. Meanwhile no one has asked Nafissatou Diallo, the maid in the New York hotel, what her views are.

DSK is on the cover of magazines again. It is exactly three years since his Icarus-like fall from the summits of power to arrest, handcuffs and global humiliation. He was the head of the IMF, one of the most powerful positions in the world, and he was perfectly placed to become the seventh President of the French Republic in 2012. Then came the Sofitel moment.

The “DSK Affair” became a saga in which a host of other allegations would be aired. These included prostitution and myriad incidents suggesting a man with a ferocious and uncontrollable sex drive. Criminal charges relating to the alleged Sofitel sexual assault were dropped against DSK (a civil case was settled out of court). Another set of charges relating to alleged sexual assault were dropped because the case ran out of time. He still faces pimping charges over allegations of involvement in what has been described as a prostitution ring in France. But with the Sofitel scandal, the mooted bid for the Élysée Palace was over before it properly began.

It is a good story. The rich and powerful world leader who crashes to ruin, his ambitions all blown to the wind. But why are these stories re-emerging now? It is no coincidence that publicity about DSK is in inverse proportion to the sitting president’s popularity, or rather unpopularity. François Hollande is the most unpopular French president of the Fifth Republic, seen as not up to the job, but also incompetent – pretty useless, in fact.

So is the DSK issue telling us something about French politics? Well, the first thing to remind ourselves of is that Hollande is President of France because DSK isn’t. Hollande was the Mr Normal/Mr Clean replacement in the Socialist Party primaries for the fallen Colossus. But the acute personalisation of French politics means that after two years of policy failures and record unpopularity, the unavoidable questions are: what would DSK have done as President, and would he have done it much better?

France’s anti-Hollande

This raises very interesting questions about France and the relationship of the French to their rulers. For it is not just whether DSK would have done better (you could hardly do worse), but that asking the question in the first place speaks volumes. What would he have done? Apart from probably making Bill Clinton look like a choir boy, he would have applied social democratic policies very similar to those Hollande wants to pursue. He would probably have appointed the same ministers – with perhaps Martine Aubry as Prime Minister; but with Manuel Valls at home affairs, Jérôme Cahuzac at finance or the budget; and he would have been obliged to appoint his rivals in the primaries – Francois Hollande, Arnaud Montebourg and Ségolène Royal.

Francois Hollande: hardly France’s fantasy leader. EPA/Christophe Karaba

He would have combined a policy of growth at the European level and spending cuts at home. So what’s the difference? - and here is where the fantasies begin and the true significance of all this appears; it is in the realm of action DSK was seen to excel. He would not have wasted two years pussyfooting around. He would have acted decisively from the start. He would have imposed himself and led in Europe. He would have stood up to Angela Merkel. He would have written off the Greek debt, and started again with tighter rules and decisive action, and a bold Keynesian approach.

France would be moving again. In a word, he would have demonstrated a powerful economic boldness. Indeed, his energy is just what the country needs to get it moving, back into the top flight of countries, economically, politically, and in terms of what de Gaulle called France’s “rang” (elevated status). In the French imagination, DSK is the antithesis of Hollande.

This brings us to the deeper significance of the whole affair. In spite – or because of? – the grossness (Depardieu’s acting skills bring out the wild porcine in his subject), the uncontrollable appetite, the clear obsession with women (as objects of desire), the implied violence, the self-destruction, DSK is interesting and highly complex.

Gerard Depardieu: porcine, priapic, powerful as DSK. EPA/Boris Pejovic

Insiders say Hollande is interesting. But no one believes it. He is, quite frankly, dull. He is not presidential. So, Hollande had an affair – discovered in January 2014 - with Julie Gayet, the actress. Yet there is something amusing – almost 1950s saucy postcard – about Hollande’s nipping out around the corner, on his motor scooter for a tryst, croissants at the ready.

There was none of the darkness of the stories surrounding DSK, but his act has a psychoanalytic aspect of someone whose behaviour suggests he actually does not want to be the president.

DSK certainly isn’t dull. Is he presidential? The tragedy for him and for France is that he was but he isn’t now. And if you really don’t want to be president, DSK’s behaviour is the true demonstration of the need for the analyst’s couch. There is a documentary on DSK called “The Man Who Wanted Everything”. What fascinates is the notion that this actually is a man who in reality and fantasy, wanted not to have everything, but to lose it. And he did.

What we see in these continuing echoes of “the DSK Affair” is the meeting of France’s public desires and private fantasies; the idea of harnessing the deeply deviant sexual power of one individual and putting it to – desperately desired – sound economic and collective effect, thus redeeming both the man and the country. It is a myth, but no less powerful for that. France has yet to get over its desire for providential heroes, and DSK is a symptom of its neurosis.