French left must find a leader to oppose Sarkozy

French politicians and pundits were scrambling yesterday to re-think a presidential race which has been led for months by an undeclared candidate who may now be disqualified.

The news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had been arrested in New York for alleged attempted rape came too late for most editions of French newspapers. They carried opinion polls showing that "DSK" was still the overwhelming favourite to top the first round presidential poll next April.

Strauss-Kahn has never been popular with left-wing militants. But he was the clear choice of many voters of the centre as a competent, experienced president to replace a desperately unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the last fortnight, DSK's primary opinion poll ratings have slipped. In France, his potential Achilles' heel was not seen to be his alleged sexual escapades, but his lavish lifestyle, funded by his wife, Anne Sinclair, a TV presenter and heiress.

Three weeks ago, DSK was photographed getting into a Porsche. The car belonged to a friend of North African origin. A good news story for DSK? No, a disastrous episode which set off a buzz decrying Strauss-Kahn's "contempt" for ordinary people.

President Sarkozy might appear to be one of the beneficiaries of the meltdown of the Strauss-Kahn candidacy. Not necessarily. The President has privately dismissed DSK in the past as a flawed candidate whom it would be easy to beat next April and May.

With DSK probably out of the race, the Socialist primary is likely to be a straight fight between François Hollande and the present, relatively unreconstructed, leftist party leader, Martine Aubry. Mr Hollande should win.

But the opinion polls suggest that neither Mr Hollande, nor Ms Aubry is certain to reach the two-candidate second round of the election in May.

DSK's political demise is great news above all for the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. Without DSK in the race, she is more likely than ever to reach the run-offs. But what then? The opinion polls are adamant that she could never be president.

Next year's presidential election is shaping up as a lottery. Whichever candidate scrapes into the second round with Le Pen will be president.

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