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05.19.11

The Strauss-Kahn Conspiracy Firestorm

Did French President Nicolas Sarkozy set up Dominique Strauss-Kahn to sideline his top opponent? Is First Lady Carla Bruni pregnant just to boost his popularity? Tracy McNicoll reports from Paris. Plus, the latest news on Strauss-Kahn.

As politicians go, French President Nicolas Sarkozy looks to be having a good week. An especially good week. A sell-the-movie-rights, surreal reversal of fortune, I was lost and now I see especially good week. And this is a desperately unpopular president who, without overstating it, has yet to have a good week this decade. With exactly a year to go before France's next president is inaugurated, Sarkozy's most formidable obstacle to re-election, a rival many believed would declare his candidacy as early as next week, looks very suddenly and emphatically out of the way. And as one of Sarkozy's most influential critics quipped, Dominique Strauss-Kahn facing charges of attempted rape on a New York hotel maid makes the long-embattled president look “almost normal.” High praise. What's more, First Lady Carla Bruni, is pregnant, Sarkozy’s father told a German newspaper. More blessed normalcy? Not so fast, say the French. Let the conspiracy theories fly.

As Strauss-Kahn languishes on Rikers Island, his brilliant career allegedly upended by his appendage, the French are calling conspiracy on the whole affair. A new poll shows a full 57 percent smell “a plot” (only 32 percent don't) as the disgraced head of the IMF and erstwhile Socialist Party frontrunner for France's 2012 presidential election is due before a grand jury on Friday. The poll doesn't ask “a plot by whom?” Armchair conspiracy theorists have narrowed it down to French right-wingers, French left-wingers, or IMF rivals. Even Strauss-Kahn's room number at the Sofitel, 2806, has counted as a clue: The Socialist primaries open on June 28.

The French press has been criticized abroad for keeping Strauss-Kahn's alleged peccadilloes under wraps. But there was enough out there, in dinner-party gossip and the odd book or article, to feed the impression that DSK's reputation as a grand séducteur could one day be his downfall. Still, the nefarious undertone was, with local media legendarily discreet and the public presumed not to care, if he didn't jump, he would be pushed.

Even Strauss-Kahn's room number at the Sofitel, 2806, has counted as a clue: The Socialist primaries open on June 28.

In DSK-Sarkozy: Le Duel, a “comparative biography” of both men released last year, authors Alexandre Kara and Philippe Martinat relate a surreal encounter in a Pittsburgh toilet. As the story goes, before a bank of urinals at the G20 summit in 2009, Strauss-Kahn called Sarkozy out on rumors the president's cronies would circulate compromising photos of the IMF chief if he ran against Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012. Sarkozy's friends had reportedly been talking up salacious photos for years, since Strauss-Kahn's failed attempt to get the Socialist Party nomination for the 2007 presidential election.

Indeed, while the French may question Sarkozy's talents for governance (his approval ratings have hovered around 30), he is ascribed a Machiavellian forte for electioneering. Just as Strauss-Kahn critics joked that his zipper could be his undoing, Sarkozy cynics bet on a baby. Since the president wed supermodel-turned-popstar Carla Bruni in 2008, skeptics joked that if he hit rock bottom politically and a second term was on the line, a presidential pregnancy was guaranteed. Never mind that the first lady in question is 43. Pregnancy rumors last month had the tweetosphere competing on wit. One Web critic suggested the baby be christened Plancom, a name that sounds no better with a Parisian accent and is French slang for “marketing op.”

In fact, Sarkozy was the first French politician to make a show of his private life and remains the exception. In 2002, he was famously photographed for the glossy Paris Match with his son Louis, then 5, playing under his Interior Ministry desk, evidently riffing on the legendary Kennedy photo. And so the pitter-patter of new little feet were to be put to campaign megaphones outside the Elysée Palace, as if a bashful père's glassy-eyed joy and showy coochy-coos could accomplish what kissing other peoples' babies could not.

Both scenarios—DSK’s eventual coup de grâce, Carla's finger-snap pregnancy—made the rounds for years, as Sarkozy's popularity plummeted and Strauss-Kahn's rose, before making headlines 72 hours apart. More fuel for the conspiratorial fire?

Of course, with Strauss-Kahn's arrest dominating coverage, the baby news didn't make the front pages as it would have weeks ago. If Bruni's pregnancy is the product of dastardly calculation (and, let's face it, with the parents-to-be aged 56 and 43, it's a lot of trouble to go to just to pull in the soccer-mom vote), it hasn't been aired showily yet. The Elysée Palace, somewhat ironically, declined to comment on a private matter. Instead, the child's grandparents supplied the news to press outside France. Sarkozy's Hungarian father Pal told the German daily Bild, while Bruni-Sarkozy's Italian mother told La Stampa.

In any case, when Agence France Presse surveyed political analysts on the potential for a baby bounce, it wasn't clear Sarkozy would get it. One pollster said a showy pregnancy could just “annoy people.” Media sociologist Dominique Wolton suggested, “If, by some misfortune, the Elysée develops a [media] strategy around the pregnancy, it will be perceived as star-ification and an Americanization of public life.” Wolton tutted, “One must not take the French to be idiots.”

So between a rape case most believe was a honey trap, and a pregnancy Sarkozy's compatriots will bristle at hearing about, Machiavellian intrigue would hardly have been worth it, n'est-ce pas?

Tracy McNicoll is Newsweek's Paris Correspondent. She has been covering Western Europe for the magazine since 2002.