A wave of stunned indignation washed across France this week. The allegations of sexual assault against one of country’s most powerful men were appalling—but it was the image of Dominique Strauss-Kahn handcuffed and being escorted by police into a New York City police station that truly shocked the nation. In his position as head of the International Monetary Fund, Strauss-Kahn (or DSK, as he is commonly known in France) is a man who is used to jetting around the world to sort out economic affairs with members of the global super-elite. But today, the man who was once touted as a Socialist party presidential contender sits in a single jail cell in Rikers Island, where he was remanded by a judge without bail.
It is a far cry indeed from the $3,000-a-night suite in Manhattan’s Sofitel, where he last slept. It was in that plushy abode, with its grand foyer, living room and marble bathroom, that Strauss-Kahn is accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid. According to authorities, the 32-year-old woman claims she entered the room to clean it, whereupon a naked Strauss-Kahn chased her thoughout the suite, finally dragging her into the bathroom where he forced her to perform oral sex, before she broke free and fled. He was arrested several hours later, having boarded Air France flight 23 to Paris at John F. Kennedy International Airport, just minutes before takeoff. He was later charged with attempted rape, a criminal sexual act, sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching.
Despite his gilded career and exalted status in France (he served as a government minister under François Mitterrand and is credited with helping manage the recent global economic crisis), the allegations against Strauss-Kahn cannot come as a complete surprise to anyone who knows him well. “Paris has buzzed for months, if not years, in the political and journalistic milieu about the rather pathological relationship that Mr. Strauss-Kahn maintains toward women,” Marine Le Pen, his far-right political rival, gloated to the press this week. And, she added, the news Strauss-Kahn had been arrested “did not make me fall from my chair.”
Strauss-Kahn’s hitherto mostly unpublicized history of alleged sexual harassment has for years been an open secret in the French media—which prides itself on respecting the personal privacy of even the most openly promiscuous politicians. The French can be a sensitive bunch, but they are hardly scandalized when it comes to the peccadilloes of powerful men. When Mitterrand was asked during his presidency if it was true he had a child out of wedlock, his answer summed up the prevailing attitude: “Yes, it’s true. And so what? It’s none of the public’s business.”
But when it comes to Strauss-Kahn, the signs were somewhat more ominous. Despite being a thrice-married father of four, he has for years been surrounded by murmurs of sexual misconduct. Frédéric Lefebvre, an adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, once wrote that the IMF head “wouldn’t last a week” in an election campaign because of the revelations that would emerge. And Tristane Banon, a 31-year-old French writer and goddaughter of DSK’s second wife, has now claimed that in 2002 she was lured by Strauss-Kahn to an apartment by the promise of an interview and then physically attacked. Her mother, a Socialist party ally of Strauss-Kahn, convinced her daughter to keep quiet, on the grounds such a scandal would be bad for her burgeoning career. When Banon finally told all on a French talk show in 2007, DSK’s name was bleeped out.
An anonymous book published earlier this year in France, entitled DSK: Les secrets d’un présidentiable, characterized the IMF head as “a pleasure seeker” who, “like all great political animals…has trouble controlling himself.” And Danièle Évenou, a French actress, once said in an interview: “Who hasn’t been cornered by Dominique Strauss-Kahn?” Marc Semo, foreign editor the French newspaper Libération, confirms this perception. “In France, sex scandals are not considered scandals,” he said on the phone from Paris. “Normally, a leader for us is a man who is a womanizer. It’s normal. Everyone knows about it in the media microcosm but we don’t speak about it publicly. With Strauss-Kahn it was a joke around the newsroom. We’d say, ‘If you want to get a good interview, send a young female reporter.’ ”
There is speculation that the case of Strauss-Kahn might put an end to the French media’s kid-glove treatment of public figures, but Semo is not so sure. “In France today we still see the distinction between private and public life as necessary,” he said. “And besides, the privacy laws are very strict.” So strict in fact, that the photographs of a handcuffed Strauss-Kahn being escorted by police (a U.S. media ritual colloquially known as “the perp walk”) are technically illegal in France. This goes some way to explain the shocked Gallic indignation in response to Strauss-Kahn’s downfall. The French are simply not used to seeing the powerful and the elite being treated like common criminals in public—even when they are accused of sexual assault.
Élisabeth Guigou, the former French justice minister who helped draft some of the country’s strict privacy laws, maligned the U.S. justice system on French radio this week. She called it “an accusatory system” and condemned the images of a cuffed Strauss-Kahn as a form of “brutality, a violence of incredible cruelty,” saying, “I am happy we don’t have to have the same justice system.”
Far more bizarre was the speculation Strauss-Kahn was the victim of some sort of conspiracy or “honey trap”—though by whom is not entirely clear. Former Socialist party leader François Hollande speculated on television this week that “perhaps this affair will unravel very quickly, if we learn that there is in the end no serious charge and that what was said by this woman was not true, and we all wish for this.” Some of his right-wing political rivals went even further. Politician Dominque Paillé rose above party lines to cast doubt on the allegations, calling them “a banana peel that could have been put under his shoe.” And Henri de Raincourt, Sarkozy’s minister for foreign co-operation, did not mince words when he observed, “We cannot rule out the thought of a trap.”
With a presidential election less than a year away, France is a nation in a state of political shock. Not only was Strauss-Kahn tipped to be the new leader of the Socialist party (he lost his first leadership bid to Ségolène Royal in 2007), advance electoral polls placed him poised to beat an increasingly unpopular Sarkozy. Semo says that, if proven true, Strauss-Kahn’s actions in that Manhattan hotel suite were “pure self-destruction, a form of political suicide.”
Now, as pressure mounts upon him to resign his influential post, most commentators agree: Strauss-Kahn’s political career is finished. But until the trial begins, France and the world will be left to speculate how a man so close to holding his nation’s highest office could fall so far, so fast.