Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy's Pick for the IMF

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Stephane De Sakutin / AFP / Getty

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking with Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Notorious for most of his career as a ferociously partisan conservative, French President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have changed gear since his election in May. First, he named longtime Socialist Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister, and included a handful of other leftists in his cabinet — a move denounced by the Socialists as taking advantage of personal ambition to divide and conquer the left. (Kouchner was expelled from the party.) Now, detractors charge, Sarkozy is seeking to sway the outcome of the Socialist Party's internal power struggle by off-shoring one of its main contenders, former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Sarkozy has nominated Strauss-Kahn to head the International Monetary Fund, making him the fast-track favorite to fill a position traditionally chosen by the Europeans.

Less than 24 hours after Sarkozy made an unprecedented presidential appearance at a meeting of European Union economy and finance ministers in Brussels on Monday, that forum declared its support for Strauss-Kahn to replace current IMF director general, Spaniard Rodrigo Rato, who steps down in October. That would appear to make Strauss-Kahn a lock for the job, although not if developing nations — emboldened by recent grumblings from Britain — propose a strong alternative candidate. In going to bat for the former Socialist Finance Minister who oversaw France's last big economic and employment boom in the late 1990s, however, Sarkozy gives little sign he's ready to foreswear the European grip on the position for the sake of greater international diversity.

"To get this job, you must have very strong credibility, incontestable experience, and be a polyglot, and he's got those qualities," Sarkozy told the Journal du Dimanche of his reasons for by nominating a political rival for the IMF job. "He strikes me as the most qualified for the job, (and) we have the same vision for how the IMF should operate."

Given the 58-year-old Strauss-Kahn's economic track record and his reputation as the French left's leading market-friendly reformist, there are few on either side of the nation's political divide challenging his nomination. Though dubious of Sarkozy's motives behind the nomination, even the Socialist Party has acknowledged that DSK (as Strauss-Kahn is known) is the consensus candidate of "France and European nations," and as such the party had "no opposition of substance or principle."

Still, detractors see the appointment as designed to increase discord among the Socialists. Many in the party had seen DSK, beaten in the party's primary, as the rival best-placed to defeat the vanquished presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, in her push to take over the party's leadership.

"Sarkozy's biggest worry in the year before the election was that Strauss-Kahn would win the [Socialist] primary, and campaign on the kinds of policies and vision for France that Sego could never come up with," says a Socialist party member who opposes what he calls a "depressingly feasible" Royal leadership if DSK moves to Washington to lead the IMF. "No one disagrees that Strauss-Kahn is right for job, but you'd have to be blind not to see that his exit from the domestic scene is in Sarko's political interests. More Sego and less DSK means better chances for a Sarkozy re-election in 2012."

Sarkozy dismisses allegations of political scheming with the reminder that, as president, he has the job of representing even his erstwhile political opponents. "The President of the Republic must unite people," Sarkozy told the Journal du Dimanche when pressed on the DSK nomination. "I haven't asked Dominique Strauss-Kahn to stop being Socialist. (But) should I rob France of his candidacy because he's a Socialist. How could I claim to be president of all French people if I reasoned in that manner?"