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France's Sarkozy, rivals jockey ahead of 2012 race

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Posted: May 17, 2011 2:16 PM
France's Sarkozy, rivals jockey ahead of 2012 race

French politicians of every stripe jockeyed for position _ Socialists, conservatives, the far-right _ as the strongest challenger to President Nicolas Sarkozy sat in a New York prison cell Tuesday charged with sex crimes.

Topping it all off, Sarkozy's father spilled the beans that a new baby would be appearing in France's presidential palace. The joyful news for Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy could be a significant boon for the unpopular incumbent ahead of France's presidential election next April.

Although leading French politicians were loath to say so out loud, Sarkozy could gain political leverage from the jailing of IMF chief and prominent Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of trying to rape a hotel maid in New York.

Sarkozy met privately with the leaders of his conservative UMP party Tuesday and urged them to stay discreet about Strauss-Kahn's case, according to French papers Le Figaro and Le Monde.

"In the current context, we should show sang-froid, courage, unity and I would add dignity. We should be a rock of solidity to lead the country," Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

At a Socialist party meeting, leader Martine Aubry urged party members to wait to hear Strauss-Kahn's side of the story before passing judgment and pledged Tuesday that the party would stick to its main objective: unseating Sarkozy.

"More than ever, we should be united and combative," she said on France-Info radio. The important thing is that "one of us wins in 2012."

The Socialists have long been fraught with divisions and ego battles, and are now struggling to come to grips with the grave allegations against a man who could have been their standard-bearer in 2012.

Aubry, seen as a party stalwart with little charisma, may seek the Socialist endorsement in primaries later this year. Some French commentators have dubbed her the "anti-DSK."

Pollsters, however, say Strauss-Kahn's arrest could heighten the political fortunes of Aubry's predecessor, Francois Hollande, who has been gaining in recent polls. He was the longtime partner of Segolene Royal, who Sarkozy beat for the presidency in 2007. Hollande and Royal split up after the last campaign, and she has out of favor among top party bosses since then.

The turmoil in the Socialists _ and potentially for Sarkozy too, because he backed Strauss-Kahn for the IMF post _ could also play into the hands of the National Front, France's resurgent far-right party.

"Unfortunately, the extreme right will be reinforced with the argument, "We always told you: They are all corrupt, they are all depraved,'" political analyst Dominique Moisi said. "That kind of anti-elite feeling is the basis for the National Front electorate."

France holds its presidential elections in two rounds: a first vote in April to winnow down an often-crowded field; then a decisive runoff two weeks later.

The IMF chief was jailed without bail after an arraignment Monday that shocked many in France, where it is illegal to broadcast images of suspects in handcuffs due to the presumption of innocence.

"K.O." screamed banner headlines Tuesday in France's Le Parisien and Liberation papers, with full-page photos of an unshaven Strauss-Kahn in the New York courtroom.

Meanwhile, the president's father, Pal Sarkozy, told Germany's top-selling newspaper Bild that the first family is expecting a baby. The president's office isn't commenting about reports the 43-year-old Bruni-Sarkozy is pregnant with the couple's first child together.

A baby could help voters better relate to a man seen as increasingly out of touch.

The Italian-born Bruni-Sarkozy was a model before becoming a singer-songwriter known for her soulful lyrics and wispy voice. She's also famous for her topsy-turvy romantic life, which included earlier relationships with rockers Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

She and Sarkozy, 56, married in early 2008. She has one son from an earlier relationship, and Sarkozy has three sons from his two previous marriages.

With no public word from Strauss-Kahn since the alleged attack, some French journalists went back over their notes: Left-leaning daily Liberation reported about a confidential April 28 meeting with him at a Paris cafe.

It said Strauss-Kahn had expressed concerns about possible low blows from Sarkozy ally Claude Gueant, the interior minister, and acknowledged three potential trouble spots for his presidential bid.

"Money, women and my Jewishness," Strauss-Kahn was quoted as saying. "Yes, I love women ... so what?"

He also reportedly recounted asking Sarkozy _ as the two stood next to each other at a urinal during an international summit _ to lay off his personal life.

Strauss-Kahn also reportedly hypothesized with journalists that a would-be accuser could claim that he "raped (a woman) in a parking lot and who someone would have promised euro500,000 or euro1 million ($750,000 to $1.4 million) to make up such a story," Liberation reported. The paper did not elaborate.

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Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.