PARIS International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has emerged as the most popular figure on the French political stage, according to two polls published on Tuesday which are likely to fuel speculation about his future.
Strauss-Kahn was deliberately coy in a radio interview last week when asked if he might leave the Washington-based IMF early and return to his native France in time to mount a challenge against President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 elections.
Sarkozy has seen his own ratings slide in recent months, while support for Strauss-Kahn, a veteran Socialist, has soared.
An Ifop survey for Paris Match said 76 percent of people had a positive opinion of the wily Strauss-Kahn, putting him at the top of their closely-watched league table, along with former president, Jacques Chirac, who has vanished into retirement.
Sarkozy, whose center-right UMP party faces a whitewash in regional elections next month, had support of just 38 percent -- a drop of 5 percentage points on January which left him languishing in 34th spot in the monthly popularity poll.
A separate survey by BVA showed 39 percent of respondents were satisfied with Sarkozy's performance while 56 disapproved, his worst reading since August 2008.
When asked which politician they would like to see have more influence in France, Strauss-Kahn led the field by a full nine points, with 53 percent backing the former finance minister.
Strauss-Kahn's term as managing director of the IMF expires in October 2012, several months after the presidential election, which means he would have to quit well ahead of time if he wanted to take on Sarkozy at the ballot box.
Asked whether this was on the cards, Strauss-Kahn told French radio last week that he planned to see out his mandate, but added: "If you ask me whether in certain circumstances I could reconsider this question, the answer is yes."
Political allies say Strauss-Kahn is unlikely to abandon Washington unless he was almost certain to win a Socialist primary vote planned for 2011 to anoint their candidate.
He lost out in the last such primary in 2006, when Segolene Royal was handed the Socialist party ticket only to go on to lose to Sarkozy in the 2007 election.
Many on the left view Strauss-Kahn with suspicion, seeing him as too pro-market, but the Socialists have not won a presidential election in France since 1988 and if the IMF chief maintains his momentum he could prove an unstoppable force.
The Ifop poll said in a head-to-head, 61 percent of people would back Strauss-Kahn against just 36 percent for Sarkozy.
The French president is suffering a prolonged bout of mid-term blues, with rising unemployment, budget woes and a series of missteps weighing heavily on his popularity.
Ironically, he was instrumental in Strauss-Kahn landing the IMF top job in 2007. At the time, many analysts saw this as a master stroke, dispatching one of the Socialist party's most effective performers to the other side of the Atlantic.
But the prestigious IMF role has only bolstered Strauss-Kahn's reputation and enabled him to stand clear of the bruising hurly-burly of domestic politics.