PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy has kept up a carefully calculated silence as sex assault charges against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have rocked France and triggered a weeklong outpouring of grief and recrimination.
While Socialists have lamented the lightning downfall of the runaway favorite to win the 2012 presidential election, and National Front leader Marine Le Pen has huffed that it was an accident waiting to happen, Sarkozy has looked dignified in holding his tongue and keeping a low profile.
He has also instructed his ministers to keep quiet about the charges by a New York hotel maid that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her.
The exit of his toughest challenger for next year’s election will not mean a re-election shoo-in for Sarkozy, one of France’s least popular presidents, but it has already bumped up his support by a couple of points in polls.
That could be enough to help the conservative beat Le Pen into a runoff, something that was far from certain a few weeks ago. Resisting the temptation to weigh in on the case may also benefit Sarkozy further if it helps reverse a perception that he is impulsive and brash.
“This could correct his image a little, and give the impression he is not so reactive after all,” said analyst Jean-Daniel Levy at pollster Harris Interactive, of Sarkozy’s lack of gloating at his rival’s downfall.
Sarkozy is also refusing to confirm whether first lady Carla Bruni is expecting the couple’s first child together, even after his father and a giggling Bruni’s hiding of her belly have as good as confirmed she is.
A presidential birth could be a public relations coup for his election campaign, especially given the contrast to the charges against Strauss-Kahn, but not if he were to be seen playing it up ahead of the election in April.
“His silence makes sense politically and I think it will work in his favor,” said analyst Emmanuel Riviere at pollster TNS Sofres. He said it would be unwise to comment until the case against Strauss-Kahn, who denies all the charges against him, is clearer.
Strauss-Kahn was set to leave jail on bail on Friday and be placed under round-the-clock house arrest, following a court decision cheered by Socialists in France.
A handful of polls since Strauss-Kahn’s arrest last weekend indicate the left-wing opposition is still in the lead to win the 2012 election, with former party leader Francois Hollande overwhelmingly backed to be the new Socialist favorite.
The surveys indicate a gain of 1 or 2 percentage points for Sarkozy in a first-round vote, enough to overtake Le Pen and make the second round a contest of left against right.
After a week of talks and even tears over Strauss-Kahn, Socialists said it was time to stop dwelling on the affair.
“We need to turn the page,” said Segolene Royal, who wants to run in 2012 after losing to Sarkozy in 2007. “We can’t let this daily soap opera ... distract us from politics.”
Socialist deputy Pierre Moscovici said the party needed to take time to reflect after a week that had badly shaken it up.
Sarkozy has seen droves of former supporters shun him in recent polls, the result of disappointment over unemployment, falling purchasing power and tension over immigration.
A survey by pollster IFOP on Friday showed Hollande in the lead for 2012 with 26 percent against 22.5 percent for Sarkozy and 21 percent for Le Pen. Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry would net 24 percent, with Sarkozy and Le Pen remaining steady.
Le Pen, who has gained a strong following since taking over as National Front leader this year, has weighed in loudly on the Strauss-Kahn case. On Friday she accused the political elite of turning a blind eye to what she called his “almost pathological” womanizing. But that does not seem to have won her any new fans.
“Strauss-Kahn is out of the presidential race so this is more of a judicial affair than a political one,” warned Riviere.
Strauss-Kahn will answer the charges against him at an arraignment hearing on June 6, just three weeks before Socialist candidates must start registering for their October primary.