At first, France's Socialist Party leaders made a good show of being beside themselves with joy on August 23. A careful, timorous Cyrus Vance, Jr., had finally decided that, however Dominique Strauss-Kahn's semen came to be splattered all over his hotel room and the chambermaid come to clean it, he might not be able to convince a jury of the seven counts of sexual assault charged against him. As soon as the tremors subsided from an eerily-timed earthquake in New York City -- a sign of Divine displeasure? -- DSK declared his relief at "the end of a terrible and unfair trauma," collected his passport, and made ready to return to France.
First though, he went to Washington to apologize to International Monetary Fund staff for what had been merely "a mistake on my part" that had reflected poorly on the institution he had run for four years. His audience was becoming used to such apologies: three years previously, after seducing a Hungarian IMF economist, he had presented his excuses for "a serious error of judgment."
In France, one national newspaper assured anxious readers that their compulsively amorous compatriot "intends to leave the United States with his head held high." It was a time for rejoicing and press releases. "We were all waiting for this… for him to finally get out of this nightmare," declared Martine Aubry, Socialist Party chief and candidate for its nomination in the October primary ahead of next April's presidential ballot. "It's pure happiness, an immense relief." Sure she was that "Dominique will be useful to France in some way, his native land to which he is so attached."
Not to be outdone, François Hollande, the party's current frontrunner for the nomination, professed himself delighted to see the end of "an intolerable ordeal.… Whatever they say about him, a man of his abilities can be useful to his country in the months and years to come." Another excited socialist proclaimed, "France needs a man like DSK! Europe needs a man like him!" Everywhere the word blanchi (given a clean slate) was bandied about, falsely implying that he had been declared innocent by a New York court.
In the traditionally leftist Paris suburb of Sarcelles, DSK's longtime political base as Socialist Party mayor and representative in the National Assembly, a fan club of 3,600 eager dupes started planning a big street party, maybe even a rock concert to welcome him back. After all, the last time Strauss-Kahn was in France, at Easter, he was adulated as a sure thing to become France's president next year.
But what about the shameful handcuffed perp walk, doing time at Riker's Island, the hasty, embarrassing IMF resignation? Even for the notoriously, nay, defiantly, broad-minded French, wasn't he a bit much? A guy who admittedly had quickie if not forced sex with a hotel cleaning lady before going to lunch with his daughter and flying back to his wife? Dismissed with the wave of a baguette by many of the faithful who buy the conspiracy theories going around.
"He was set up, Monsieur," says one shrewd citizen of Sarcelles with a knowing wink. "He's a millionaire. If he wanted a woman, he could have thousands of beautiful women." Besides, it was well known that America has a problem with sex. "It comes from its Protestant legacy," explained a fatuous op-ed columnist in the leftist Le Monde. "It's a two-faced Puritanism that co-exists with a thriving porn industry. Americans licked their lips over every intimate detail of this case."
But with the presidential election only eight months off, prominent socialists began sniffing the air and concluded that DSK's imminent return to France meant trouble for the party in general and them in particular.
The French had had over three months to reflect on who he really was. The womanizing, of course -- the Paris swingers' club where he was an habitué, being caught by police with a prostitute in a parked car in the Bois de Boulogne, the string of women coming forth with stories of his rough handling during brief affairs, and now this Sofitel sordidness. Maybe even worse in a country where money is more taboo than sex was the flaunted wealth of his heiress wife, with his un-socialist taste for expensive suits, $600 spaghetti dinners in New York, the $50,000 a month town house, assorted residences in Paris and Marrakesh. Polls showed public opinion had swung 180 degrees, with up to two-thirds of voters now saying they didn't want him as president after all.
His closest socialist allies began throwing their support to other candidates for the nomination. Frontrunners discreetly distanced themselves. One contender demanded that DSK apologize to the French the way he did to the IMF staff in Washington. Michel Rocard, a former prime minister and now party elder, said bluntly that Strauss-Kahn had a mental illness that made him incapable of "mastering his impulses." Party Chief Martine Aubry, her eye on the female vote, suddenly disapproved of his attitude toward women. He had become politically toxic.
The street party and concert were off, but that didn't keep DSK's arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport early Sunday morning from being a rowdy media circus worthy of the Second Coming. Dozens of harried gendarmes tried to corral the frenzied posse of photographers and cameramen, while a handful of well-wishers shouted "He's here!" "Courage!" "We love you!" Obviously coached by his wife Anne Sinclair, a former TV journalist, and a female media adviser never more than a few steps away, Strauss-Kahn pushed his own baggage cart, a fixed smile on his face. The goal was to look like any relaxed returning vacationer -- just your regular happy couple back from a trip abroad. Pas de problème!
The fixed, cat-ate-the-canary smile was still there when they reached the entrance to their upscale apartment on the arcaded, 17th century Place des Vosges. Beaming, hands casually in pockets, pirouetting jauntily back and forth under the fusillade of flashes, he spent several minutes basking in the warmth of the media sun, pointing playfully to friends, exchanging comments of complicity with Sinclair but making none to the press. The ever-present media adviser says he will speak publicly, likely during a prime-time interview, within the next fortnight. Whenever, he'd better give a compelling, confessional version of what happened in that hotel room.
No matter how ingratiating his stage smiles or convincing his eventual TV appearance, he will continue to be dogged for months to come by legal troubles. This week he is expected to be summoned to answer the accusations by Tristane Banon, the 32-year-old writer suing him for allegedly jumping her like a "rutting chimpanzee" during an interview in 2003. And besides Nafissatou Diallo's civil suit against him in New York, her lawyers have opened a second front in France, accusing Strauss-Kahn's Paris allies of witness tampering to keep a French woman from talking about a clandestine affair in 1997 that led her to attempt suicide.
One satirical cartoon this week has Anne Sinclair telling DSK, "After all, it's not long until 2017 [the next presidential election]…if you can just behave yourself." If this were anywhere but France, where they voted for 14 years of François Mitterrand, the possibility of a political future for him would be ludicrous. But socialist bigwigs are already talking about a ministerial post for him if they win next spring's elections. At least neither they nor anyone else in his right mind sees him as a future president. As a French friend told me the other day with heartfelt gratitude, "This makes twice that you Americans have saved us."
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