Oskar Lafontaine

Since the Fifth Republic’s birth in 1958, France has had six presidents – and only one, François Mitterrand (1981-1995), was a man of the left.  Now certain elements of the French left see a great opportunity to capture the presidency again by selecting Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund’s director-general, as their candidate to run against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election.

I saw Strauss-Kahn, or “DSK”, in action in October 1998 when, as France’s finance minister, he travelled to Saarbrücken, capital of the tiny German state of Saarland, for a meeting with Oskar Lafontaine, his left-wing German opposite number.  Back then, the big economic story in Europe was what many people saw as an effort by Lafontaine and Strauss-Kahn to push for politically managed exchange rates and thus, supposedly, to curb the European Central Bank’s independence on the eve of the euro’s introduction.  The fuss over this was quite out of proportion to what the two ministers had in mind, let alone what they were capable of delivering.  Lafontaine didn’t last even one year as German finance minister. 

The memories came flooding back when I heard last weekend that Oskar Lafontaine, the leftwing German political leader, was withdrawing from national politics.  Lafontaine is the sort of public figure that lazy journalists often call “firebrand” (Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko, though from the opposite end of the political spectrum, is another).

I first came across Lafontaine in November 1990, just after capitalist West Germany had taken over communist East Germany – a more accurate way of putting it, in Lafontaine’s opinion, than the weaselly term “reunification”.  He was the Social Democratic party’s candidate for chancellor in the first parliamentary elections in the newly united Germany, and he was holding a campaign rally in a sports hall in east Berlin.