François Hollande, France's Socialist front-running presidential candidate, wishes the Tristane Banon case would go away, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris.
"This has nothing to do with me," Hollande said testily on Friday, after being interrogated by the police on what exactly Miss Banon's mother, a fellow-Socialist politician, had told him at the time of her daughter's alleged sexual assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also a Socialist.
"The French are bored with this whole case. The Right is using smear tactics against me, but it will backfire. France deserves a higher class of debate."
Tristane Banon is the young French writer who in various talk shows and interviews over the past four years has accused the former French finance minister and IMF director general of attempting to rape her eight years ago - to general indifference but without contradiction.
She finally filed her complaint last month, after seeing the New York case against Strauss-Kahn, on broadly similar charges, seemingly disintegrate.
"I saw him having his bail money returned and walking free," Banon said in an interview to the magazine l'Express, "and immediately going out to dinner in a luxury restaurant. Meanwhile people called me a liar. It made me sick."
At first the DSK sex scandal seemed to destroy the best hopes the Socialist opposition had to finally seize power next year. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in every poll, appeared a shoe-in in next year's presidential election, with a lead of 20 points and more over the embattled Nicolas Sarkozy.
This, as well as sheer embarrassment over the "unseemly" American case, made most Socialist leaders, including Strauss-Kahn's rivals, suspect a trap, a Gaullist "black op". Much was made of the fact that the hotel chain, Sofitel, where DSK stayed and allegedly assaulted a chambermaid, belongs to a French corporation whose CEO is in good terms with Mr Sarkozy.
Then the New York prosecutors themselves revealed that DSK's New York accuser, who had lied on various statements and her asylum-seeker visa application, would be an unreliable witness, opening the way to a possible dismissal of the case. In the meantime, a DSK presidential candidacy, still desperately touted by his friends, nevertheless looked increasingly impossible, and the party reorganised itself to field at least three major candidates in its October primaries.
For Hollande, who is now consistently given as next year's winner against the unpopular Sarkozy in polls, it could have looked, after all, as if the whole affaire had opened the way to the top job.
And then his name was given to the police, as a corroborating witness, by Miss Banon's mother, who said that she had asked for his advice, as the Socialist party leader at the time, and that he counselled her to sue. Asked point-blank in interviews, Mr Hollande flubbed his answers. He didn't remember; it was a long time ago; it was not his role to give judicial advice; well, yes, he did remember "vaguely something."
Gradually an increasing number of facts in Miss Banon's story started to check out – for instance, the address of the bachelor's flat where she said she had her disastrous meeting with him, 13 rue Mayet, in Paris near Montparnasse, turned out to be the same address Strauss-Kahn gave to a fellow Socialist female MP, Aurélie Filipetti, for an assignation she refused. And as they did so, Mr Hollande's denials became even more qualified.
After all, yes, Mrs Mansouret (Tristane Banon's mother) had indeed told him of "an incident" at the time, but "not in any detail." At any rate, it was he himself who had requested to be heard by the police, in a spirit of "complete transparency." He would sue anyone trying to implicate him in something that was "none of his concern."
"From now on, I shall take any mention of this as a political manipulation against me and my party," he said.
Ms Filipetti, who is on the record as saying, after an alleged "forceful grope" by DSK a couple of years ago, that she would take "very good care never to find herself alone in a room with him", has meanwhile also been heard by the police on Friday, since Ms Mansouret has produced emails from her in which she recommended Tristane file a complaint, and called DSK "dangerous for women."
The 38-year-old Filipetti is a remarkable character in her own right, with a reputation for being principled and fearless. A former Green councillor, she left them for the Socialists over matters of policy, including what she called at the time their "toxic anti-Israeli bias" – an increasingly unpopular stance on the Left. The daughter of a Lorraine Communist miner who was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camp for being a Résistant, she has written an acclaimed, sensitive autobiography about the vanishing French working class.
Yet on Friday she was uncharacteristically reticent about her police hearing. "I only did my duty as a citizen," she said, thereafter toeing the party line about "right-wing manipulating tactics".
Meanwhile, next year's other main Socialist hopefuls, who happen to be two women, current party leader and Lille Mayor Martine Aubry, as well as Ségolène Royal, the mercurial outsider who lost to Sarkozy in 2007, have also been strangely silent over the Banon case.
Aubry, who is herself being targeted in internet rumours accusing her, somewhat inconsistently, both of being an Islamist sympathiser and of having a drink problem, has issued a statement in support of her bitter rival Hollande, to the effect that he was the victim of a "political manoeuvre".
Royal, Hollande's former life partner (they have four children), who made much of her "feminism" during her 2007 campaign – in which she accused the other male candidates, who included, of trying to "railroad her" – has not piped up with a word upon the subject.
François Hollande professes "outrage" at what he calls "dirty tricks" – in which he includes a large front-page headline in Le Figaro, the centre-right daily, announcing that he would be heard by the police, under side-by-side pictures of himself and of Miss Banon. Le Figaro belongs to planemaker Sarge Dassault, a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose dread hand the Socialists see behind the whole Banon lawsuit.
Mr Hollande believes readers would far rather find analyses on France's dire economic situation than sensational accusations by comely young women that implicate major political figures in their newspapers. This is a sentiment that he probably shares with every other candidate in next year's election, but right now it is doing nothing for his popularity in France.