Opinion polls unanimously predict International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn would become France's next president - if he chose to run. But are his huge popularity scores in the surveys a true reflection of voting intentions? Lénaig Bredoux reports.
Not a day passes, or so it seems, without an article, an interview or an opinion poll in France touting International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the favourite - albeit still undeclared - candidate for the French presidency in elections due in May 2012. Since late November, he's been designated by the French media as the one who will "flatten", "crush" or even "totally crush", incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy - as well as his Socialist Party (PS) rivals in the party primary.Each time, the argument is based on an opinion poll, a flutter of which appeared at the end of 2010, when DSK, as Washington-based Strauss-Kahn is popularly called in France, made his last public appearance in the country. Since the November 23rd publication of two surveys (by TNS Sofres and Ifop) of voter intent in the next presidential election, no less than six opinion polls were commissioned by the media about Strauss-Kahn's chances of becoming the Socialist Party's candidate. Questions included: who is best candidate, DSK or PS First Secretary Martine Aubry? Is the PS timetable, with a primary to select the party's candidate in the autumn of 2011, relevant? Are you going to vote in the PS primary and for whom? Will DSK leave his position at the head of the International Monetary Fund and return to France? He walked over them all.
All of this is in addition to the monthly popularity surveys (Bva-Orange-L'Express-France Inter; Paris Match-Ifop; Viavoice-Libération; Ipsos/Le Point; Figaro Magazine; and OpinionWay for Metro/Krief Group) regularly published in the press.
The trend remains solidly the same: DSK is far ahead, not only in surveys of voter intent for 2012 but he is also the Socialists' preferred candidate in the primary. As a result the IMF managing director is regularly on the front page of daily newspapers from Le Parisien to Libération. In asingle week, he appeared on the covers of the three major French weeklies Le Point, Le Nouvel Observateur and L'Express.
The editorials or columns by the most often-quoted political observers all provide essentially the same analysis . The enigmatic "sphinx" residing atop "Mount Olympus" is also, according to US weekly Newsweek, "The Top Guy" who "has never experienced quite so much adulation, nor, indeed, affirmation of his centrist political and economic views".
'A grandiose dilemma'
"He's THE favourite in the opinion polls. Behind him there is nothing," wrote Yann Marec in an editorial for the major regional (southern France) daily Le Midi Libre. "Not a single leftist politician can rival the head of the IMF. In short, it's him versus all the others."
Hervé Gattegno, editor-in-chief of French weekly news magazine Le Point shares the same opinion. "His candidacy is the best for the Socialists. He thus no longer has the right to duck out, and he's inevitably understood this. The question is not whether DSK will be a candidate but rather when he will declare his candidacy," he wrote, adding that "he is no longer the best candidate for the PS, he's clearly their only one."
For Elisabeth Chavelet, editor-in-chief of the weekly Paris Match, which devoted a three-page spread to DSK in 2009, he's the only one on the left to have true "credibility". Meanwhile, Christophe Barbier, editor at weekly news magazine L'Express, offered Strauss-Kahn an enticing alternative: "Either DSK serves France by declaring his candidacy for the French presidency or he serves it also by saving the global economy at the IMF. It's a grandiose dilemma, the dream of any politician."
As a result, the attempt by the PS to impose its own political agenda appears meaningless, despite a party programme elaborated at four national conventions last year (on international questions, renovation, the economy and achieving social equality). Despite also party leader Martine Aubry's statements on the relevance of the primary timetable and on the futility of opinion polls. "I don't look at polls day in, day out," she claimed. "So much money spent on that," she added. The situation is all the more absurd - and unusual - that Strauss-Kahn himself is condemned to silence by his position (should he declare his candidacy, he would be forced to resign from the IMF).
His public relations strategy is, nonetheless, currently working marvellously well. His comments are knowingly dispensed, titbit by titbit. During a European trip in November, when he spoke on French public radio station France Inter, he said that the opinion polls were very flattering and stressed his left-wing credentials1 (a tactic initiated a few days earlier by his wife, the journalist Anne Sinclair). The message was repeated in Switzerland. But he also reminded the audience that his current post "is a full-time job".
Nonetheless, his close allies are increasingly sending signals indicating that he will declare. According to the latest Socialist talking points, the idea of a DSK candidacy is "moving forward" as noted by both former French prime minister and Socialist Party big-wig Laurent Fabius.
1: Dominique Strauss-Kahn's potential weakness in gathering support lies with the electorate on the left of the political spectrum who perceive him as too free-market oriented and business-friendly. A professor of economics and business lawyer, he was first elected to parliament in 1986. He also served as minister of industry from 1988-1991 in the Socialist governments of prime ministers Edith Cresson and Pierre Bérégovoy. He was finance minister from 1997 to 1999 in the Socialist government of prime minister Lionel Jospin. Forced to resign due to a judicial investigation opened into his suspected involvement in two cases of financial corruption, he was cleared in 2001. Nicolas Sarkozy lobbied for his appointment to the IMF in September 2007.
'Polls are about popularity, not votes'
But some Socialists already fear a poorly constructed candidacy, one created by the press, fed by opinion polls and bolstered by political commentators. They see a sort of repetition of the run-up to the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty when the near-totality of the press and the "experts" called for a "yes" vote but which was soundly rejected by the voters. They also recall the 1995 presidential election which was lost by Edouard Balladur, who campaigned while prime minister against fellow conservative right rival Jacques Chirac, despite a substantial lead in the opinion polls.
The surprise of the 2002 presidential election when the far-right National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second place also comes to mind1 as does the 2007 presidential election in which the popular Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal lost to Nicolas Sarkozy. This fear is expressed by alternative press outlet Fakir, which produced a long article on DSK, and on the blog of anti-capitalist activist Raoul-Marc Jennar.
These commentators point out DSK's close relationship with the business world, and with the press. His public relations are handled by members of the Euro RSCG advertising giant. Strauss-Kahn can also count on the support of his former communications advisor, Ramzy Khiroun, now special advisor to French business executive Arnaud Lagardère, head of the Lagardère Group, who's holdings range from the defence and aeronautics industries to media and publishing. Khiroun is spokesman for the Lagardère Group. Its many media outlets include weeklies Paris Match and le Journal du Dimanche, magazine Elle and radio station Europe 1. The group also recently poached journalist Denis Olivennes, who is considered close to DSK, from the left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Questioned by Mediapart about these links, Ramzy Khiroun refused to comment, but denied any conflict of interest. "Friendships are one thing, a career path is another," he said.
"For the past six months, we've been witnessing a repetition of what happened in 2006 when, based on the faith of opinion polls that were fragile but unanimous, predictions claimed that Socialist Party members had massively designated Ségolène Royal as candidate," explained Patrick Lehingue, professor of political science at the University of Picardy (northern France) and the author of Subunda, coups de sonde dans l'océan des sondages, a look into the troubled waters of opinion poll production and interpretation. According to him, "everything is happening as if no lessons were learned from past failures and especially from the fact that the figures given by polling institutes cannot be taken as read. At 500 days before the ballot, we don't even know who the candidate will be, or their ability to mobilise the electorate or their platforms," he added.
For Alain Garrigou, professor of political sciences at the University of Paris at Nanterre and founder of the Observatoire des sondages (Opinion Poll Observatory), DSK is also "inevitably in part a creation of opinion polls because of the median voter theory," according to which, if you question all voters about the PS, the right-wing voters will seek the left-wing candidate whose ideas are the closest to their own. In addition, "the majority of opinion polls are not about voter intent but about popularity ratings which are more favourable to those talked about in the media. It's a circular system," Alain Garrigou noted. Furthermore, the questions asked by the polling institutes "are not posed in real life," he argued.
"Today you and I are the only ones thinking about the presidential election. People who are not directly concerned have other problems," admitted Dominique Reynié, the often-quoted director-general of the Foundation for Political Innovation (which is close to the conservative ruling party, the UMP). "The fact that DSK is reduced to silence in a society in which there is so much talking actually magnifies his aura and causes people to speak in his stead. We are witnessing a very impressive organisation of wishful thinking and a mirror effect in which the commentators find, through him, the stereotype of a respectable person. He's at the head of the class , he's well-educated. DSK offers everything that we [in official circles] have been taught to recognise as a sign of competence," he added.
1: The result of the April 21st, 2002 first round of the presidential race resulted in a second round run-off between conservative right RPR (which became the UMP) leader Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front. The then-prime minister and Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin narrowly lost, contrary to opinion poll-based expectations.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
"This isn't a media phenomenon. This is not a public relations strategy," explained François Kalfon, opinion poll expert for the Socialist Party, and a DSK ally. "It is the institutes and the media that are commissioning [the opinion polls]. This is a much more serious trend. For the past year and a half, the players have not changed very much with two of them clearly out front" (DSK and Aubry), he added. But he also admitted that the opinion polls in no way "predict" the outcome of the ballot and that they are, in part, a "self-fulfilling prophecy".
"We are not duped by our tool, and manipulation is possible," admitted Fourquet. "But we don't write the editorials, we question people. The opinion poll measures a balance of power, it can reinforce a trend but in no way can it create one." This view is shared by Dominique Reynié: "I can't imagine imposing something on an entire complex society composed of people rooted in their self- interests and their own ideologies," he said. "If we want to impose something on them, it fails. It only works if the supply corresponds more or less to the demand."
Meanwhile, the pollsters and the pundits are gearing up for the next episode in this political saga. Undoubtedly the impatience of commentators to know if Strauss-Kahn will or not run will become increasingly pressing. This will likely lead to further questions about the lengthy Socialist Party primary timetable and to speculation over a supposed weariness of the French public at the Socialists' shilly-shallying.