It was the sort of fall from grace from which it seemed impossible for any leading public figure to recover.
On May 14, New York Port Authority police pulled Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund and a likely Socialist challenger for the French presidency in 2012, from the first-class cabin of a flight bound for Paris. Early the next morning he was formally arrested on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape against a Manhattan hotel maid.
The allegations were particularly ugly. Police said the maid entered Strauss-Kahn’s $3,000-a-night suite thinking it was empty. Strauss-Kahn emerged naked from the bathroom and attacked her, forcing the maid to perform oral sex on him. Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, told New York criminal court: “The evidence, we believe, will not be consistent with a forcible encounter.” He did not deny a sexual encounter, in other words, but suggested it was consensual. DNA tests reportedly confirmed traces of Strauss-Kahn’s semen on the maid’s clothes.
Strauss-Kahn’s wealth and status, compared to that of his alleged victim, a refugee from the West African country of Guinea, fit the storyline of a man drunk on power and contemptuous of those beneath him. But many among France’s political and cultural elites rallied around him. There was talk of sinister plots, and outrage that Strauss-Kahn was paraded before television cameras before he had been convicted of anything. “This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter—this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic,” wrote French philosopher and pubic intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy.
In fact, anyone arrested in the United States may be subjected to such a “perp walk.” And surely, as defenders of American justice pointed out, here was proof that, in the United States at least, no one is above the law. What might have happened had an African room cleaner reported a sexual assault by one of the world’s most powerful men in a Paris hotel?
The question, it turns out, is not hypothetical. Last summer, Diane Diallo, a Guinean maid at the Park Hyatt in Paris, said someone in the entourage of the Qatari royal family sexually assaulted her. In an interview with the BBC, she said she told police about the alleged assault immediately. “And they let me know very quickly they wanted me to drop it. I was shocked, in tears. I told them it wasn’t right, that because a person is rich and important, he can treat people as he likes. The police replied, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’ ” French authorities are reportedly now investigating the case.
Strauss-Kahn had become another proxy in the endless cultural skirmishing between France and America. And at first the indignant howls of the French establishment appeared to sully his friends more than it helped him or tarnished his accusers. What was wrong with France that, when confronted with allegations of a bestial abuse by one of the country’s ruling class, its citizens rush to defend him and cry conspiracy?
But now the case against Strauss-Kahn is fraying, amidst reports prosecutors have discovered reasons to doubt the maid’s credibility as a witness. According to law enforcement officials cited by the New York Times, she lied during her asylum application, including about being gang-raped in Guinea, and she lied about her finances. Soon after the alleged assault, the woman called a boyfriend at an immigration jail in Arizona and, according to an official quoted by the Times, said “words to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry, this guy has lots of money. I know what I’m doing.’ ”
Acknowledging that “the circumstances of this case have changed substantially,” New York Judge Michael Obus last week released Strauss-Kahn from house arrest. He celebrated, along with his wife and another couple, at the Scalinatella restaurant in Manhattan, where they dined on pasta and black truffles. The bill topped US$600. It is expected that charges against him will be dropped at his next court appearance on July 18, if not earlier.
But Strauss-Kahn faces other legal challenges. On Tuesday, French writer Tristane Banon filed a formal criminal complaint against him for attempted rape. She says he insisted he hold her hand when she tried to interview him in 2003, and then wrestled her to the floor and pulled open her jeans. “When I realized that he really wanted to rape me, I started kicking him with my boots,” she told the French weekly L’Express this week. “I was terrified.” Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers say they will sue Banon for making false statements.
STRAUSS-KAHN’S troubles are far from over. Yet the man whose descent looked irreversible may still achieve rehabilitation. And more than that is possible.
A poll released Sunday shows that 49 per cent of the French want Strauss-Kahn to return to politics, with nearly 60 per cent of left-leaning voters wanting the same. The Socialist party’s deadline for applying for the party’s nomination to run in 2012 is July 13. Former party leader François Hollande says he would be willing to extend that, giving Strauss-Kahn time to return to France and declare his candidacy. “His presence alongside us would be decisive for our success in the presidential election,” leading Socialist party parliamentarian Jack Lang told French television.
But an attempt at a political comeback may not be a wise move—for Strauss-Kahn and for the Socialists. “Something that’s come out of this is that he made a very rash judgment at a time when he had a great future ahead of him,” Anne Corbett, visiting fellow at the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told Maclean’s.
Rash judgment doesn’t explain all the possible scenarios that might have unfolded in Strauss-Kahn’s hotel suite. The presence of his semen on the maid’s clothing indicates a sexual encounter took place. It’s conceivable—barely—that the maid, seeing the paunchy 62-year-old naked, was overcome with desire. If so, Strauss-Kahn indeed showed rash judgment in his response.
Strauss-Kahn might have paid for sex. The New York Post reports Strauss-Kahn’s accuser allegedly worked as a prostitute; she in turn sued the paper and five of its journalists for libel. “There is information of her getting extraordinary tips, if you know what I mean. And it’s not for bringing extra f–king towels,” the newspaper quoted a source close to the defence investigation saying.
Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam,” whose clients included former former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, says she also provided women to Strauss-Kahn. “He wanted an ‘all-American girl’ with a fresh face from the Midwest,” Davis told London’s Daily Telegraph. “A girl in January 2006 complained he was rough and angry, and said she didn’t want to see him again.”
The hotel maid might have targeted Strauss-Kahn with the intention of profiting—other than through a straight exchange of sex for money. Perhaps she hoped to blackmail Strauss-Kahn or planned in advance to falsely accuse him of assault—with an eye on some sort of compensation. If so, Strauss-Kahn is a victim, but he was also foolish as well as rash.
Finally, there is the possibility that the sex was not consensual, that Strauss-Kahn did assault the maid, but that her history of lying and apparent attempts to benefit from the encounter have made her too unreliable a witness for prosecutors to build a case around. If so, Strauss-Kahn’s flaws remain much darker.
EVEN IF the U.S. charges against Strauss-Kahn are dropped, he will not be an easy man for French voters to support—especially given the allegations made by Tristane Banon.
Strauss-Kahn might already have concluded as much. Socialist politicians in France are often rich, but they are expected to pretend otherwise. Florence Deloche-Gaudez, a French visiting fellow at the LSE’s European Institute, says Strauss-Kahn would not have gone out for a fancy dinner following his release from house arrest if he planned on campaigning soon. “I think if you want to be a candidate for the Socialist party, you avoid spending so much money just for dinner,” she told Maclean’s. “Because you know he already had a problem with a too-expensive car and clothes.”
Anne Corbett believes the most Strauss-Kahn can realistically hope for is to become an elder statesman within Socialist party circles. “It’s extremely difficult to see him being anything other than a wise man somewhere around, rather like [former prime minister Lionel] Jospin is now,” she says. “It’s really not at all credible that he could stand for president.”
The biggest problem that Strauss-Kahn—and for that matter other philandering French politicians—may face, says Corbett, is that his actions have led to “a real turning point in French public opinion about what is tolerable and what isn’t.” In the past, a code of silence prevailed over the private lives of French politicians. Their political colleagues and those in the media knew about affairs and other indiscretions, but kept quiet about it. There was little public demand to know. Strauss-Kahn was one of many who benefited from this tradition. But that is changing.
“There has been intense questioning, really to a masochistic point, about sexual mores in public life,” says Corbett. “And what’s interesting is it’s encouraged other people to bring forward allegations about other public figures.” In June, former French education minister Luc Ferry, while discussing on television the French tradition of not probing private political lives, said another ex-minister had participated in an orgy with young boys in Morocco. Ferry, who did not name the ex-minister, said he was told about the alleged incident by “high authorities of the state,” including a prime minister. “All of us here probably know who I’m talking about.”
It’s doubtful Ferry would have gone public with these allegations before Strauss-Kahn’s arrest shifted public perception in France about what should and should not be secret. The French used to believe their discretion was exceptional. “Now they are the ones in the mood for less toleration for unsavoury sexual encounters,” says Corbett. “The feudal rights of the elites have been absolutely challenged.”
Corbett notes that a sense of sexual entitlement among the politically powerful is not unique to France. She says when she was a young journalist in London, an aide to the British prime minister chased her around his office. But until now a sex scandal was unlikely to inflict much damage on a Frenchman seeking high office. Strauss-Kahn has been weakened. It’s not yet clear how badly.
Deloche-Gaudez, who is also an associate research fellow at the Centre for European Studies at Sciences Po, an elite teaching and research institution in Paris that has traditionally educated French leaders, doesn’t think he deserves a political future. But maybe, she says, “I have become too English.”