If the allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn end the popular IMF chief's presidential candidacy, it would be a first for France, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris.
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s likely candidacy – and probable victory – next year against Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential elections (he had been leading by double digits in every poll in recent months, even without declaring himself officially) should have ushered in a series of firsts for France’s political life. First French Socialist leader to have officially discounted Marxism; first Jew directly elected to the presidency; and first seriously rich president in a country where money, not sex, is a dirty word.
Instead, DSK, as he is known here, will go down in history as the first French politician whose career imploded because of a sex scandal, not a financial one. When the news broke in Paris early yesterday that France’s former finance minister had been arrested by the New York police for alleged sexual assault on a hotel housekeeper, reactions here were split between sheer disbelief, suspicions of entrapment and all-too-many knowing shrugs.
“Dominique Strauss-Kahn is well-known as a seducer,” his official biographer, Michel Taubmann, said. “I can’t believe he would force himself on an unwilling woman. That doesn’t make sense.”
Such a statement would come across as damning in most Western countries. In France, it is seen as a spirited defence. Until today, complicated sexual lives, multiple divorces and serial adultery never hampered political careers. François Mitterrand famously ran three parallel families while president. He appointed a former girlfriend of his, Edith Cresson (a married woman) as prime minister in 1991. His predecessor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, used to borrow a Ferrari from his friend Roger Vadim, the film director and Brigitte Bardot’s first husband, when he went on the pull. (He once crashed it into a milk float early one morning on his way back to the Elysée.) Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were known for eyeing up comely reporters and female junior ministers.
In that context, DSK’s notorious penchant (and more) for a legion of pretty women did him no harm at all. “If anything,” Taubmann recalls, “he was the one harassed, not the reverse — I’ve seen time and again women MPs, party workers, etc brazenly passing on notes, hoping he would notice them.”
Alleged assault, however, is another matter entirely. “If the whole situation isn’t exposed for being a political set-up in the next 24 to 48 hours,” French leading polling expert Stéphane Rozès warns, “Monsieur Strauss-Kahn’s political career is finished. He is, of course, presumed innocent until proven guilty, but even suspicion of attempted rape will make it impossible for him to stand.”
It is well worth noting that it took the long arm of New York’s finest to make the Strauss-Kahn scandal incontrovertible even to the very cagey French press. With the help of the internet — the great difference with the Mitterrand years, where the average French voter was left ignorant of the president’s natural children, for instance, and stringent privacy laws were supplemented by thousands of illegal phone taps directly commandeered by his private office — all the stories about his womanising have filtered down for years.
What is more surprising is that DSK has also been accused in the past of assault along eerily similar lines, if not as brutal as what the NYPD spokesman has alleged. Journalist and novelist Tristane Banon, a god-daughter of DSK’s second wife Brigitte Guillemette, recalled in a 2007 book, then in a TV chat show that same year, going to interview Strauss-Kahn to an address “he gave me, neither his office nor his flat; an elegantly appointed studio, with a bed in an alcove”, in which, she said, he grabbed her, tore off her bra, and she only managed to escape after a serious scuffle. “I kicked him, I called him a rapist, he didn’t seem to care,” she said. (DSK’s name was bleeped out in the chat show.)
Banon’s mother, Anne Mansouret, a Socialist local politician, confirmed the story yesterday to the respected website Le Post. Banon consulted a barrister, but finally decided not to sue, a decision her mother now regrets having encouraged her to do so. “She was just starting out in journalism,” says Mansouret. “I was afraid she’d be defined by this story.” She says her daughter will give a press conference “in the coming days”.
Other instances may well resurface. Aurélie Filipetti, a respected Socialist MP and Ségolène Royal supporter, said in 2008 that she had been groped by DSK and would “forever make sure” she was never “alone in a room with him”.
And yet nobody among DSK’s spin doctors and advisers seemed to think this would blow up in the face of their candidate. In recent weeks, as the probability of his candidacy looked certain, and politicians and the press made hay of his taking a ride in a Porsche owned by his main adviser, Strauss-Kahn and his wife Anne Sinclair sued France-Soir, a Paris newspaper, for disclosing the benign fact that he had bought three suits from a French bespoke tailor in Washington, who also dressed several US presidents, for a sum estimated “between $7,000 and $35,000 apiece”. Looking rich – he is in his own right and his wife, the granddaughter of one of France’s great art collectors, is even more wealthy – was seen as infinitely more toxic.
On the other side of the divide, Nicolas Sarkozy’s team were rubbing their hands at the prospect of their own man’s taste for bling, Rolex watches and expensive pens being negated by DSK’s own tastes for luxury.
“What are holidays in my wife’s family house on the Mediterranean next to a three million euro riyad in Marakesh?” Sarkozy himself was reported to have said to Cabinet members.
When he was appointed to the IMF in 2007 with the support of Nicolas Sarkozy — who saw a welcome opportunity of ridding himself of a dangerous opponent, at least for a time — most DSK-watchers warned that Dominique, for all his sophistication and razor-sharp intelligence, would do well as head of the world’s economic watchdog, but might not realise the cultural gap between life in Paris and Washington. Sure enough, barely a year later, DSK’s affair with an IMF economist, the Hungarian Piroska Nagy, made international headlines.
Amazingly, he survived that crisis. It probably helped that the disclosures occurred exactly three days after the beginning of the financial meltdown, on October 18, 2008. After an internal inquiry, the IMF published findings that Strauss-Kahn, universally seen as a safe pair of hands in difficult times, had neither favoured his mistress, nor harassed her. Bowing to American mores, DSK apologised publicly to his high-profile wife, something he had never bothered to do before in France, and Ms Nagy soon afterwards took the opportunity of a well-compensated redundancy when DSK decided to bring cost-cutting home to the IMF, and shed 600 top jobs.
In the following years, he burnished his credentials as a hard-working boss, criss-crossing the globe to help bail out failing financial institutions and defaulting countries, all the while avoiding criticism from the Right or the Left — he is one of the stars of the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, for instance, in which he details the work done to keep the economic sphere from exploding, and calls for more regulation of financial institutions in moderate, convincing tones.
Unlike most of France’s political elite, but like Nicolas Sarkozy — and Marine Le Pen — Strauss-Kahn is not a civil servant and a graduate of the top government school, ENA. He found himself, as finance minister, constantly sneered at by his supercilious mandarins for what was seen as his “inferior” education, even though he has taught at Stanford and Harvard, and co-authored major economics books. When, between political mandates, he turned to the private sector to make a living, instead of sliding back effortlessly into a well-paid, guaranteed-for-life civil service job, he was derided for a supposed crass love of money. Helping to save the world economy and being constantly voted France’s most popular politician, on track for the presidency no less, was essential recognition at last.
But all this came to a crashing halt on Saturday, as DSK was walked out of the first-class cabin of Air France flight 23 sitting on the tarmac of JFK airport, to be arraigned at the Harlem Special Victims Unit of the NYPD, and subsequently charged with “attempted rape, [a] criminal sexual act, and unlawful imprisonment”.
The French presidential race is wide open again, as DSK’s closest contender in the Socialist primaries, the lacklustre François Hollande, and Nicolas Sarkozy refrain from commenting for fear of appearing too eager to take advantage of their rival’s meltdown.
The only untroubled beneficiary is the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. “I am utterly unsurprised,” she said yesterday. “He must be presumed innocent - but everyone in the Paris political village knew of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s pathological relations with women.”
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011