Left, Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrives at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Roissy,… (Olivier Corsan / EPA; Vincent…)
Reporting from Paris — It was a day that began with onetime presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn arriving home from America a free man but with his career and reputation in tatters, and ended with First Lady Carla Bruni talking publicly for the first time about the baby she and her husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, are expecting.
In what was either a master stroke of political timing just seven months from a presidential election, or a lucky coincidence — and many suspected the former — the contrast could not have been better for the first family.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, who at one time was seen as the opponent likeliest to oust Sarkozy from office, stepped off a jet Sunday with his wife, waving to television cameras. But his smile did little to mask the fact he is out of the running for the Elysee Palace, even though prosecutors in New York recently dropped charges that he had sexually assaulted a Manhattan hotel maid.
Several hours later, the television cameras focused on onetime supermodel Bruni, 43, sitting in an Elysee salon, talking gently of her baby, due in October, in all her rosy-cheeked glory.
To supporters of Strauss-Kahn, he returns blanchi, whitened, after being freed from jail and cleared of charges that he forced a maid to perform oral sex. The former chief of the International Monetary Fund contended that the sex was consensual, and the case was eventually abandoned because of doubts about the maid's credibility.
Nevertheless, the case raised uncomfortable questions about Strauss-Kahn's allegedly predatory behavior toward women, which one former employee described as "aggressive," and has done nothing to help the prospects of fellow Socialist Party leaders hoping to oust Sarkozy. He could also face police questioning in France over accusations that he attempted to rape novelist and journalist Tristane Banon in 2003. Strauss-Kahn's lawyers have described the allegations, currently under investigation, as "fantasy."
Although Strauss-Kahn is still seen by many in France as a brilliant economist and politician, some Socialists have been distancing themselves in an apparent attempt to avoid the fallout of his tarnished reputation.
Martine Aubry, a leading contender to be the Socialists' presidential candidate, caused a storm last week when she referred obliquely to the scandal on French television. "I think the same thing as many women regarding Strauss-Kahn's attitude toward women," she said.
Michel Rocard, a former Socialist prime minister, went further. "The man obviously has a mental illness, trouble controlling his impulses. He's out of the game. It's a shame. He had real talent, that's true," he told journalists.
A poll conducted 10 days ago found that about two-thirds of French voters do not want Strauss-Kahn to return to a high-profile political role.
During her TV interview Sunday evening, when Bruni was asked what she thought about the Strauss-Kahn scandal, she said she was a "bit confused about the outcome."
Until Sunday, neither Bruni nor Sarkozy had officially confirmed the pregnancy. It will be her second child — she has a son from a previous relationship with French philosopher Raphael Enthoven — and the thrice-married Sarkozy's fourth.
Bruni said she had no idea of the baby's gender but said the child would be shielded from the public spotlight.
"I will do everything to protect this child I am expecting, and I will do so with the greatest energy," she said.
Talking about her husband's political future, she refused to say whether he would seek a second term, as he almost certainly will, but said being president had changed him.
"He has aged, he has matured, he is more calm," she said.
Willsher is a special correspondent.