Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the tubby, leering, former International Monetary Fund director accused of sexual harassment or rape over a period of years by women of several nationalities on two continents, disappointed even his broad-minded compatriots Sunday evening. Thirteen million, a new record for a TV newscast in France, watched his much-anticipated prime-time interview, DSK's first public comments since his return to Paris. Most had three questions in mind.
First, they wanted this well-known grand séducteur with all the sex appeal of a bloated toad, to say exactly what happened in suite 2806 of the New York Sofitel last May 14, when he allegedly forced himself on a chamber maid. They also expected him to apologize for his behavior, which shamed and embarrassed his country. And, according to pre-program polls, over 60 percent hoped that he would announce his retirement from any role in French politics. What they got instead for 23 minutes was an insulting performance of hair-splitting, half-truths, and lies.
Performance is the operative word. The camera showed a dead-panned, heavily made-up Strauss-Kahn -- blackened eyebrows, whitened face, rouged lips -- completely different from the grinning, complacent image he had projected during the months of his New York house arrest. Gone too was the self-satisfied beaming and preening of his tumultuous debarkation at Charles de Gaulle airport two weeks ago. Now every practiced gesture, each calculated grimace (eyebrows shooting up in feigned innocence, mouth downturned in a circumflex of disgust) said this was a man to be pitied.
He had, after all, suffered at the clumsy hands of "frightening" American justice, where money was everything, and where "I was humiliated before I could even say a word in my defense… I was afraid, very afraid." He hadn't been speaking five minutes before my wife, who can spot French body language at 30 yards in poor light, decided, "He's lying." Evidently she was not alone: Monday morning polls showed that he left some two-thirds of the country unconvinced.
The performance was abetted by the interviewer. Claire Chazal, a longtime colleague and friend of DSK's TV journalist wife, Anne Sinclair, who worked at the same channel for years -- she sent text messages of consolation to Sinclair during the New York episode -- went through the motions of asking the obvious questions, reading them off as if from a script. When he skirted a question, she quickly went on to the next without a probing follow-up. Their complicity was so clear that many concluded the whole thing was rehearsed. The channel, TF1, France's most popular by ratings, helped him avoid a group of protesters who chanted "DSK shame on you" and "DSK, sexual deviant, king of the chimps." He was sneaked in through a back entrance.
There was "no violence, no constraint, no aggression," about the sex he had with Naffisatou Diallo, he insisted. To make this and other points, he theatrically brandished the concluding report by Attorney General Cyrus Vance, Jr. in which he justified dropping charges. The seven-minute sex was consensual: "She lied about everything." For him, it was at most a "moral failing" that he regretted. The hospital's forensic examination when Diallo was admitted, showing signs of an attack? Merely an admission procedure, not a real physical exam, he insisted, at considerable variance from the truth as generally understood.
Chazal let that pass and pitched a softball question about whether the whole episode might not have been a conspiracy against him. He gladly took the bait, considering solemnly that it might indeed have been a trap or a plot, time would tell. Many here guffawed at the visions that one conjured up. Naffisatou Diallo as temptress entering his room in a negligee? Paid by some vast, right-wing conspiracy to set him up and torpedo his chances to become France's socialist president next year? Nobody credits France's conservatives with that much imagination or organizational ability. Quelle blague!
As for the suit brought by Tristan Banon, the French writer who tried to interview him in a Paris apartment in 2003 and who claims he attacked her "like a rutting chimpanzee," his fingers in her mouth, his hand in her underwear, he was dismissive. "Imaginary and slanderous, and I have filed a counter-suit for defamation." He refused to say more and was not pushed to do so. But earlier in the week leaked information from a police interrogation of Strauss-Kahn revealed he had changed his story. Instead of rejecting her version entirely, he now admitted "making advances" and trying to kiss Banon, who was then 24 and he 30 years older. All in good fun, of course. He desisted when the princess declined to kiss this particular frog, even if he was her best friend's father.
Predictably left unasked, in these circumstances, were any awkward questions about the Hungarian IMF economist Strauss-Kahn seduced three years ago at a Davos, Switzerland, international business forum. That was only, he remarked chivalrously, "a serious error of judgment." The lady herself said the affair was consensual; when pressed, she also said later that she consented to sleep with the boss because "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't."
Strauss-Kahn's artificial, defensive manner changed when the subject turned to the neutral ground of his analysis of Europe's current economic mess. He was on comfortable turf here, having been touted by socialist leaders as having much-needed economic wisdom that can be useful to France. But little of that was on display. He limited himself to a few obvious remarks: Greece's debt needed to be reduced, European measures so far were inadequate, the euro's situation was serious but not dangerous. If he got paid at the IMF for ideas like that, we should ask for our dues back.
Another unasked question: what was the point of this exercise in mendacity? If he simply wanted to retire from public life, as a majority of the country wanted, he could have issued a statement and left with quiet dignity. There was a French precedent. Lionel Jospin, longtime head of the Socialist Party, minister in several governments under François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, considered himself disgraced in 2002 when he failed to win the presidency. He quickly announced his retirement from politics, stepped down as prime minister, and has played no role since. It was the honorable thing to do.
Strauss-Kahn, whose track record for honorable behavior is spotty at best, could have only one goal in mind by making Sunday's appearance: getting back in the political game as soon as possible. Asked about his plans for the future, he replied, "I am not a candidate for any position, but my entire life has been dedicated to trying to be useful to the public good. We will see."
With party leaders discreetly trying to distance themselves from him ever since the indelible images of a handcuffed, disheveled Strauss-Kahn getting the perp walk in New York, those last three words must have struck fear and loathing into many socialist hearts.