PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes his stint at the helm of the G20 will boost his re-election chances in 2012, but it was a potential challenger who stole the show when finance ministers met at the weekend.
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- a former French finance minister who polls show would trounce Sarkozy if he ran -- dominated the front pages in France after the G20 meeting in Paris briefly placed the rivals on the same stage.
In town for three days, Strauss-Kahn was impenetrably silent over whether he could run for the left in the 2012 election, where center-right Sarkozy is expected to try for a second term.
But he took a sideswipe at France's lack of sweeping progress on its G20 goals, setting the scene for a pre-campaign season of shadow-boxing between the two men.
He also used his podium at the meeting to talk about issues like unemployment and income inequality, topics likely to appeal to Socialist Party supporters who see him as more of a centrist.
"He's clearly a candidate. He should just say so," government spokesman Francois Baroin told Europe 1 radio, betraying the ruling UMP party's exasperation as Strauss-Kahn's cameo appearance eclipsed coverage of the G20 talks in French media.
The two-day meeting, hosted by Sarkozy's finance minister, Christine Lagarde, struck a compromise deal on how to measure economic imbalances, after China blocked the use of exchange rates and currency reserves as yardsticks.
Strauss-Kahn, who only crossed paths with Sarkozy at a pre-dinner reception at the presidential palace on Friday, sniffed after the summit that, just as he had feared, it had proved harder than in the past to reach a consensus.
He also complained that "very little" had been done on G20 goals to beef up cross-border bank supervision and resolution.
CARDS CLOSE TO CHEST
Speculation has bubbled for months over whether Strauss-Kahn will seek the Socialist Party candidacy, where his leadership on global economic issues could give him an edge over more domestic leftists like Martine Aubry and Francois Hollande.
Polls indicate he would be the left's best chance for clawing back to power after three terms in opposition.
A survey published at the weekend in French weekly Marianne showed he would be the strongest Socialist candidate by far in a first-round election and would beat Sarkozy by 22 points in a hypothetical runoff, with 61 percent versus 39 percent.
Expectations hit fever pitch when Strauss-Kahn's wife, a former TV news presenter, said this month she hoped he would not seek a second term when his IMF job runs out in November 2012.
"I am going to repeat, and I can say it 25 times if you like, what I have always said: today I am running the IMF," Strauss-Kahn told a news conference at the G20 summit.
Some 7.2 million viewers watched a France 2 television interview on Sunday evening in which he repeated the same line -- close to the 8.3 million who tuned in on February 10 to see Sarkozy take questions from a panel of regular people.
UMP Secretary General Jean-Francois Cope huffed afterwards that Strauss-Kahn had appeared "haughty" on air and showed a distance from ordinary people.
Pollsters see his aloofness and intellectual air as a flaw next to Sarkozy, whose volatile temper and coarse language makes him more human, even if many French find him showy and arrogant.
If he does want to run in the Socialist primaries later in the year, Strauss-Kahn must keep his cards close to his chest until the last minute, as his IMF post prohibits any engagement in national politics.
That said, people close to the Socialist Party say even his inner circle are frustrated at his unwillingness to give away any clues. Some wonder if he doesn't find the prospect of a second term at the Washington-based IMF more appealing.
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)