Perhaps the best president France will never have was back in the news this week. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, former favourite to be the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, former member of the team that rescued the global financial system, spent the night in police custody in the French city of Lille, in connection with allegations about a prostitution ring. French radio solicited the immortal statement from one of his lawyers, that people were "not always clothed at these parties", and "I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude".
Be that as it may – and we could be regaled with the subtleties of drawing that distinction in a court case yet to come – the tale of Strauss-Kahn's fall is the eternal one of a powerful man with a weakness for women; a man whose sexual appetite exposes his vulnerability and – in his case – his unsuitability for high(er) office. How many times do the parables have to be retold for the male of the species not to recognise the danger presented by femmes fatales? Power may be the ultimate aphrodisiac, but a moment of abandon can see it lost for good.
In recent weeks, though, it has been possible to track the emergence of a male counterpart – an homme fatal – a man who deploys his masculine qualities, but not necessarily his sexual magnetism, in such a way as to undermine a woman in power, even to engineer her downfall. With more women rising to leadership positions, including national power, the future for the homme fatal looks bright.
As witnesses for the prosecution we could call the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Gillard's homme fatal needs no introduction. He is Kevin Rudd, her sullen predecessor as Prime Minister and the epitome of the rejected male rival. One-and-a-half years ago, Gillard seized the moment to mount a challenge to his leadership. The pair of them ended up in a nasty spat in the run-up to an election. She won, and – just – won the election, too.
Defeated twice over, Rudd would have been well advised to request a return to his country's diplomatic service (whence he came), or to put his Mandarin-language skills to good use as, say, chairman of an Australia-China friendship society. Instead, he was re-elected to Parliament and accepted the post of foreign minister. Earlier this week, he announced his resignation at a 1am press conference in Washington DC, barely 24 hours after insisting that he would not leave office. He gave a viciously personal speech, citing attacks on his integrity by what he called "faceless men" and complaining about lack of support from Gillard. Hell hath no fury like a male politician scorned. Gillard is now calling a leadership contest in an attempt to rid herself of this homme fatal forever – or die trying.
Angela Merkel's hommes fatals have been of a rather different complexion, but no less dangerous. In common with many powerful women, she seems to have something of a weakness for blandly good-looking men with wishy-washy characters to match. The past few years of her chancellorship have illustrated the damage such supposedly unthreatening men can do.
Merkel formed her first coalition, of necessity, with the craggy men at the head of the Social Democratic Party. For her second, she preferred to hitch her Christian Democrat alliance to the philosophically more congenial Free Democrats, headed by Guido Westerwelle. As a coalition, it has not been a great success. But the danger to her authority has come less from the skittish charms of Westerwelle, than from other men she personally put, or left, in place.
They include two federal presidents – a largely ceremonial position in Germany, but important as guardian of the Constitution – and a defence minister. Line up their pictures, and you notice a certain similarity between them – good looks and a superficial air of cleverness that may conceal its opposite, or raise questions about personal integrity.
She inherited her first President, Horst Köhler, who came from the IMF to be Germany's first non-politician head of state. He resigned summarily, only a year into his second term, after causing a media storm with comments about German military involvement in Afghanistan. His hastily recruited successor was Christian Wulff, a Christian Democrat who occupied a position somewhere between ally and potential rival to Merkel. His resignation last week followed simmering allegations about a loan he took when head of the state of Lower Saxony, but – more pertinently – an attempt to prevent the story appearing in Germany's popular Bild newspaper. The new nominee for President, Joachim Gauck, initially opposed by Merkel, is of a very different stamp.
In between these two resignations came the departure, in disgrace, of the defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, over claims, eventually admitted, that he had plagiarised parts of his doctoral thesis. As with Köhler and Wulff, the damage to Merkel was not just that she had personally chosen him, but that, like Wulff, he had wriggled for a long time on the hook without understanding the political harm being done. Merkel's judgement was called into question on both counts.
It is surely no coincidence that both types of homme fatal featured prominently in Margaret Thatcher's one-time entourage: the predecessor scorned – Edward Heath – doing his bitter-best to undermine her from the sidelines, followed by disappointed Lords-to-be Howe and Heseltine, and the blandly good-looking yes-men who increasingly plotted behind her back. The combination, in the end, proved fatal.
Gillard and Merkel – resilient women both – have lived to fight another day. But both have found it hard, just as Thatcher did, to prevent inroads being made on their power by their hommes fatals. And the men are just as deadly as the female of their species – until they have got what they want.