Soul-searching in France after Strauss-Kahn arrest jolts nation
PARIS—The arrest in New York of one of France’s leading global figures and a possible next president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on charges of attempted rape has produced an earthquake of shock, outrage, disbelief and embarrassment throughout the nation.
On Sunday, the country woke up to the tawdry allegations that Strauss-Kahn, 62, a leading member of the Socialist Party and the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), had waylaid and tried to rape a chambermaid in a $3,000-a-night suite at a New York hotel.
On Monday, leading French newspapers delivered a unanimous verdict that the political career of IMF Director General Strauss-Kahn was over. As the Socialist Party heavyweight was led handcuffed from a Harlem police station, his fall dominated the front pages.
“Unbelievable, incredible, inconceivable,” the right-leaning Le Figaro wrote in an editorial. “As we wait for truth to be sorted from falsehood, one thing is already certain: Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be the next president of the French Republic.”
Polls showed that Strauss-Kahn, who has been widely praised for his stewardship of the IMF amid the global recession, was the brightest hope of France’s opposition in winning the 2012 presidential election. But the arrest upended French politics.
“The Socialists have lost the only candidate who was, in all possible configurations, leading in the polls. And who was capable of beating Nicolas Sarkozy,” the left-leaning Liberation wrote in its editorial. “This promising political dynamic has collapsed before the campaign has even begun.”
The government of President Sarkozy responded cautiously, saying the presumption of innocence must be maintained and the courts must be allowed to do their work.
“Certainly there is the presumption of innocence,” La Tribune, a business newspaper, wrote in its editorial. “But, unless he can very quickly extricate himself from the sexual assault accusations he is facing, all Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s hopes of competing in the Socialist primary and thus the 2012 presidential election will evaporate this afternoon in a grand New York hotel.”
The leader of the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, admitted that she was “totally stupefied” by the charges against the man who had been considered most likely to bring her party back to power in next year’s presidential election by defeating Sarkozy.
Some, including Strauss-Kahn’s wife, the US-born French television journalist Anne Sinclair, expressed disbelief in the charges and affirmed her faith in her husband’s innocence.
Others talked darkly of a possible “setup” of Sarkozy’s most prominent rival.
But there was a general recognition that whatever the outcome—unless the New York police have made a horrible error—the arrest had exploded Strauss-Kahn’s political hopes, upended France’s political landscape and abruptly ended his career at the IMF, which is in the middle of crucial negotiations about loans for distressed nations of the European Union.
The IMF quickly appointed an acting managing director on Sunday to replace Strauss-Kahn, who spent hours in a Manhattan holding cell awaiting arraignment, which was postponed until Monday after additional evidence was sought including DNA samples from his fingernails and skin.
As the impact of Strauss-Kahn’s predicament hit home, some in the news media began to reveal accounts, long suppressed or anonymous, of what they called Strauss-Kahn’s previously predatory behavior toward women and his aggressive sexual pursuit of them—from students and journalists to subordinates.
Strauss-Kahn’s extramarital affairs have long been considered an open secret.
But the legal charges against him—which include attempted rape, an illegal sexual act and an effort to sequester another person against her will—are of an entirely different magnitude, even in France and elsewhere in continental Europe, where voters have generally shown more lenience than Americans toward the sexual behavior of prominent politicians, most notably the sexual escapades of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
“If the accusations turn out to be true—and even if they are proved false—this is a degrading thing,” said Francois Bayrou, a centrist who ran for the presidency in 2007.
Liberation’s deputy editor, Vincent Giret, wrote sadly on Sunday that Strauss-Kahn seemed “best-armed to respond to the disarray of the French, exhausted by the crisis and disoriented by the crazy reign of Sarkozy.”
But Strauss-Kahn apparently believed he could win the presidency “without fighting,” Giret said, and so did not follow a path of “renunciation and abnegation.”
Aubry, the Socialist Party leader, asked people to withhold judgment and called for an emergency meeting of the party leadership on Monday.
“I call upon everyone to wait for the reality of the facts, to respect the presumption of innocence, and then, upon everyone, to keep the necessary decency,” she said.
Segolene Royal, the last Socialist Party presidential candidate, who lost to Sarkozy, talked about “deeply distressing news” but said that anyone was innocent until proven otherwise.
Gerard Grunberg, a respected political scientist who studies the left, said that Strauss-Kahn’s political future and career at the IMF were over.
“It’s a political earthquake and a catastrophe for France,” Grunberg said in an interview. The charges have disrupted “the future presidential election in France, and the entire political spectrum,” making it more likely that a centrist candidate would run.
The absence of Strauss-Kahn would help the candidacy of Francois Hollande, a former Socialist Party leader, and might encourage Aubry herself to run. Royal had already announced her intention to seek her party’s presidential nomination.
If Strauss-Kahn does not run, that will not necessarily help the far-right National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, but it is likely to make Sarkozy more plausible as an incumbent.
“It’s going to help him to hope a little more,” Grunberg said.
Some of Strauss-Kahn’s allies said that he must have been the victim of a setup.
Christine Boutin, head of the small Christian Democratic Party, told French television: “That he could be taken in like that seems astounding, so he must have been trapped.”
Grunberg, however, was dismissive of suggestions that Strauss-Kahn might have fallen into an elaborate sting, “If all this was a trap, he wouldn’t have fled in a panic,” he said.
In 2008, Strauss-Kahn was criticized by the IMF after an affair with a subordinate, an economist, Piroska Nagy.
But an investigation found that he had not abused his position, that the affair was consensual, and that he publicly expressed regret.
Sinclair, his third wife, was supportive. “These things happen in the life of any couple,” she wrote then.
On Sunday, Sinclair issued a statement saying: “I don’t believe for a second the accusations leveled against my husband.”
‘Only real problem’
Despite the rumors, one of the few journalists to point to them when Strauss-Kahn was appointed to the IMF was Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent for Liberation.
He wrote on his blog that Strauss-Kahn’s “only real problem” was his “rapport” with women.
“Too insistent, he often comes close to harassment,” he wrote. “A weakness known by the media, but which nobody mentions. (We are in France.) The IMF, however, is an international institution with Anglo-Saxon morals. A misplaced gesture, a too specific allusion, and it will be a media scramble.”
Strauss-Kahn behaved aggressively toward a young female journalist and novelist, Tristane Banon, in 2002, according to the newspaper Le Parisien and other websites, and corroborated by Banon herself in a 2007 television interview on Paris Premiere, a cable channel.
At the time, Banon said that a French politician—whom she later said was Strauss-Kahn—had tried to rape her in an empty apartment in Paris after she had contacted him for a book she was writing.
“He wanted to grab my hand while answering my questions, and then my arm. We ended up fighting, since I said clearly, ‘No, no.’ We fought on the floor, I kicked him, he undid my bra, he tried to remove my jeans,” she said.
Afterward, Banon said that she had contacted a well-known lawyer who already had “a pile of files on Strauss-Kahn,” but that she never filed a complaint.
“I didn’t dare; I didn’t wish to be the girl who had a problem with a politician for the rest of my life,” she said.
Banon’s mother, Anne Mansouret, a Socialist, later confronted Strauss-Kahn and asked why he had attacked her daughter, she told Rue 89, an online newspaper. According to her, he responded: “I don’t know what happened, I went crazy.”
On Monday, Banon’s lawyer said he was working with his client in filing a formal complaint againt Strauss-Kahn.
Power of attraction
At the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po, where Strauss-Kahn was an economics professor, “he had a real power of attraction,” a former student said in an interview.
“There were always hordes of female students waiting to talk to him at the end of his classes,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Reports from New York Times News Service and AFP
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