Ironically, his luck began to change that happy day two weeks ago in Paris when Dominique Strauss-Kahn took the wheel of a $135,000, V-8, 500-horsepower Porsche Panamera. Before he could even test its acceleration (0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds), a guy with a cell phone snapped a photo of him. And as people do these days, he sold it to a Paris newspaper. No matter that the car actually belonged to a friend of his. When you’re a prominent member of the French Socialist Party, indeed, the front-runner in pre-election polls and its strongest bet in years to beat Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012, you’re supposed to be helping the laboring masses, not tooling around in luxury automobiles with a smug smile on your face. The distant rumbling of an uproar could be heard in the chattering class.
The rumble grew and the luck curve continued down a few days later. Published stories reported that 62-year-old DSK, as he is known here, wore decidedly non-working class clothing: $35,000 (sic) suits from a fancy tailor in Washington, where as managing director of the International Monetary Fund he plays Master of the Universe bailing out nations in financial trouble. Not so, he countered furiously, but few believed him, it was so in character.
Some began toting up the signs of his un-Socialist lifestyle: two apartments in fashionable Paris neighborhoods, a vacation home in Marrakech, and, since he joined the IMF in 2007, a red brick mansion in Georgetown with a BMW SUV in the driveway. His tax-free salary at the IMF is reportedly $420,930, plus an annual “scale of living” allowance of $75,350. His wife Anne Sinclair, an American-born French TV journalist, inherited paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Degas from her art merchant father. How bad could it be?
Well, how about a 48-hour descent into the netherworld of New York City’s criminal justice system? Complete with police lineup, forensic medical exam, complete body-cavity search, and perp walk in handcuffs under popping flash bulbs and leering TV cameras?
Strauss-Kahn’s personal Götterdämmerung on Saturday came with stunning swiftness. On Friday he had checked into the upscale Sofitel in the Times Square area, staying in a $3,000 a night suite with foyer, conference room, living room, marble bathroom and bedroom. It was a lavish layout for a personal trip whose purpose is still unclear; an embarrassed IMF stated firmly that he was not on official business.
He was due in Berlin on Sunday to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, followed by two days of meetings in Brussels to work on Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. He could easily have taken a flight from Washington’s Dulles airport without going through New York. Oddly, when police pulled him off an Air France flight Saturday afternoon just two minutes before it left the gate, the plane was headed not to Berlin, but to Paris.
The police arrested DSK in response to allegations by a hotel housekeeper that he had violently sexually assaulted her around noon after trying to lock her in the room. They booked him on charges of a criminal sex act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment (or as the official complaint nicely puts it, “oral sexual conduct and anal sexual conduct with another person by forcible compulsion”). At his arraignment the judge agreed with the Manhattan district attorney’s argument that Strauss-Kahn was a flight risk and ordered him held without bail — Sinclair wired $1 million to him overnight, just in case — pending his appearance before a grand jury on Friday. He is now in an 11 by 13-foot cell along with several thousand other inmates at the tough Rikers Island prison complex. If found guilty on all four felony counts and three misdemeanor counts, he won’t board another flight to Paris for 25 years.
French media and politicians can’t decide whether DSK’s spectacular downfall is an earthquake or soap opera. “Shock. Political Bomb. Thunderclap,” headlined one newspaper. “KO,” ran another, next to a full-page photo of a dazed, unshaven Strauss-Kahn. “It’s an episode from the TV serial Dallas, and DSK is JR,” said a lawmaker in Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party. “Totally hallucinating,” said another. (Sarkozy himself, hitting new lows every week in the polls, has carefully said nothing, though he must be all smiles behind Elysée Palace doors.) Conspiracy theories are rife, but several politicos recognized it was humiliating for France. As one put it frankly, “Now everyone will point at us and say, ‘Look how the French act.'” For sure.
Strauss-Kahn secured top legal talent with the sure touch and speed of someone who would seem to have been through something like this before. In a matter of hours he hired the celebrity New York attorney Benjamin Brafman, whose past criminal cases include the likes of Michael Jackson and the rapper Jay-Z. DSK also quickly retained the services of William Taylor, a top Washington lawyer who reportedly advised him in 2008 in the case of his scandalous affair with an IMF staff member. He was immediately visited in his cell by the French consul general in New York, who assured him that “The French embassy and consulate are mobilized” whatever that means.
THE FACT IS, DSK has been through something like this before, only without the grave legal consequences that he may now face. His extramarital affairs have long been the stuff of Paris gossip and newsroom banter, where he was dubbed “the great seducer.” In broad-minded France where politicians’ private lives are off-limits to reporters (think François Mitterrand’s love child hidden for years in broad daylight and financed with public monies), a dash of expected promiscuity only adds to a public figure’s luster. This after all is the country where the medieval tradition of cuissage gave nobles the inalienable right to sleep with a peasant’s bride on her wedding night. Thus few eyebrows were raised when DSK gave an interview to a Paris paper two weeks ago in which he addressed his womanizing. “Yes, I like women,” he declared with all due chutzpah. “So what?”
Sometimes he went too far. Like three years ago, early in his stint as IMF chief, when a furious Argentine economist publicly blamed DSK for seducing his Hungarian wife, who was then an IMF employee, at the Davos international business forum. Both admitted the affair (she has since left for another job). The IMF glossed over the case, contenting itself with noting that he had not actually used his hierarchical position to abuse an underling. Strauss-Kahn issued an apology, saying, “I accept that this incident represents a serious error of judgment. I am committed, going forward, to uphold the high standards” expected of an IMF managing director. Case closed. But it is clear now that the IMF was seriously remiss in not dismissing him at the time, however embarrassing that would have been.
As France goes through a period of soul-searching in the light of DSK’s arrest, other skeletons may well emerge. Assistant District Attorney John A. McConnell, the prosecutor, told the judge Monday that New York crime officials are investigating at least one other case of “conduct similar to the conduct alleged” in the present case. He did not elaborate.
In Paris this week, a young journalist named Tristane Banon spoke up to say she had been sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn in 2002 when she interviewed him. He attacked her like “a rutting chimp,” she says, describing how he wrestled her to the floor, undoing her bra and trying to pull her blue jeans off before she managed to flee. Her mother dissuaded her from filing suit at the time, because there had not been an actual rape and public opinion would have sided with the great man. But her lawyer says she is likely to sue now because “she knows she will be heard and be taken seriously.”
A few French opinion leaders are beginning to speak out publicly. One of the first was the National Front’s president, Marine Le Pen. “The truth, and everyone knows it, is that Paris has buzzed for months if not years in political and journalistic circles about the pathological relationship M. Strauss-Kahn has with women. This week’s news is not exactly surprising.”
Another was the lawmaker Bernard Debré, a well-known member of Sarkozy’s UMP party and son of one of the authors of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. He told a news magazine that DSK had engaged in this sort of behavior several times at the Sofitel in New York, where he has stayed five times over the last year, and that hotel employees knew about it. “Enough is enough, you have humiliated France,” he said. “You have ridiculed and soiled your country. Your best hope now is to seek the help available for sexual delinquents.”
To be sure, every man is innocent until proven guilty, even people like this. No one can be certain what may come to light as this murky affaire goes forward. But at least one fortunate consequence is now clear: contrary to predictions of just a week ago, Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be the next president of France.