PARIS (Reuters) - Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician who heads the International Monetary Fund, said on Thursday he might cut short his mandate, stoking speculation that he wants to run in France's 2012 presidential election.
His term as managing director of the IMF expires in October 2012, several months after the election, which means the Socialist veteran would have to quit ahead of time if he wanted to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy at the ballot box.
Strauss-Kahn usually sidesteps the issue but in a radio interview on Thursday, asked specifically about politics, he said he could imagine a scenario in which he left the IMF early.
"As it stands, I've always said, I am planning to see out my mandate," he told RTL radio.
"But if you ask me whether in certain circumstances I could reconsider this question, the answer is yes, I could reconsider this question," he added, without going into details.
The former economy minister has seen his popularity surge in France since becoming head of the Washington-based IMF in 2007 and he regularly tops polls as the person on the left that the French would most like to see replace Sarkozy.
However, a premature exit from Washington would carry many risks for Strauss-Kahn, as there is no guarantee that he could win enough backing from Socialist supporters to become their candidate for the 2012 ballot.
Asked whether Strauss-Kahn had informed the IMF he was thinking about returning to French politics, IMF spokeswoman Caroline Atkinson told reporters: "He repeated (in the interview) what he said many times, which is that he plans to see out his mandate at the IMF."
The Socialists plan to hold primary elections in 2011 to decide who should lead their party and polls have shown that many party members view Strauss-Kahn with suspicion, seeing him as too much of a free marketeer.
He lost the 2006 Socialist primaries to Segolene Royal, who was then defeated soundly by Sarkozy, and Strauss-Kahn would need a clear indication that he will do better this time around before abandoning the IMF and throwing his hat into the ring.
His ambitions have been kept alive over the past two years by continued disarray within the Socialist party, which has yet to recover from the shock of their thumping defeat in 2007.
His supporters believe the Socialists may lay aside doubts about the smooth-talking Strauss-Kahn if they thought he was the only person capable of defeating Sarkozy.
However, in recent weeks, Socialist leader Martine Aubry, the architect of France's controversial 35-hour work week, has seemed more self-assured and many leftists believe that she will seek the party ticket which could sink Strauss-Kahn's hopes.
France's centre-right is nonetheless concerned at the prospect of a Strauss-Kahn challenge, recognising that his economic prowess could garner cross-party support at the polls.
Economy Minister Christine Lagarde urged the IMF chief on Thursday not to get distracted from the job in hand. She also delivered a sharp, backhanded compliment, drawing attention to the age of Strauss-Kahn, who will turn 61 in April.
"He is a man of quality who has many options for his future and who has already had a great past. He was already in politics when I was a student," she told Radio Classique.