Fortunes change quickly in politics. Four years ago, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was dismissed as an "elephant" - a member of the outdated old guard of the French Socialist Party - as Ségolène Royal, a somewhat erratic but charismatic politician, was soaring in the polls. She led the Socialists in a tough battle against Nicolas Sarkozy for the French presidency, and lost. Now, Ms. Royal's star has faded, and the hero of the day is Mr. Strauss-Kahn, the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
He is the choice of most Socialists as their candidate for the 2012 presidential campaign, and he is the adversary Mr. Sarkozy doesn't want. Even though he's absent from the French national scene (the IMF is based in Washington), Mr. Strauss-Kahn is, according to the polls, the most popular politician in the country - and he could beat Mr. Sarkozy by a wide margin.
Shortly after his 2007 victory, Mr. Sarkozy pushed for Mr. Strauss-Kahn's nomination as IMF director. It was a clever move on two counts: A respected former finance minister in Lionel Jospin's government, Mr. Strauss-Kahn was an ideal fit for the job and would heighten France's image on the international scene. And perhaps more important, Mr. Sarkozy was getting rid of a potential rival, since Mr. Strauss-Kahn's five-year mandate at the IMF would end in November of 2012 - six months after the presidential election.
But people can resign from a job. And that seems to be what Mr. Strauss-Kahn intends to do. In a recent interview on French TV, he carefully stayed silent about his intentions but hinted that he was well-informed about France's economic problems. And he insisted that, under his direction, the IMF followed progressive politics - a direct response to his extreme-left critics, who accuse him of having sold his soul to the dark forces of capitalism.
Most observers bet he'll jump into the French presidential fray but will wait until July to become a candidate for the Socialist Party's primaries, set for October. The candidates must declare themselves by July 14.
Is Mr. Strauss-Kahn a shoo-in against Mr. Sarkozy, who is more unpopular than ever? Perhaps - unless something like the John Turner syndrome is at play. The ephemeral successor to Pierre Trudeau was hyped as the world's seventh wonder during the years he spent away from politics.
Mr. Turner's good looks and fine reputation as a finance minister made him the golden boy that the Liberals and the media were waiting for. But distance and mystery often enhance a politician's image. When Mr. Turner actually reappeared as a real-life leader, the disappointment was huge. He had lost touch with the country, and clearly lacked the stamina to tackle the tough challenges of political leadership.
Similarly, Mr. Strauss-Kahn might disappoint those whose expectations are too high. At 61, he looks older than his age. At a time when politicians strive to stay in shape, he carries the traces of too many good meals and too much air travel. Still, the man would be a formidable contender.
He's intellectually alert and extremely bright, and his reputation as a pragmatic politician rather than a dogmatic leftist might attract some of Mr. Sarkozy's former supporters, the ones who've come to hate the President's populist style and who long for a mature style of governing. Insiders say the war machine at the Élysée Palace is already at work and busy collecting negative stories about Mr. Strauss-Kahn.