Dominique Strauss-Kahn, widely known as DSK, formerly France’s minister of the economy and finance, ex-director-general of the International Monetary Fund, frontrunner as Socialist candidate in the presidential elections of 2012, is a broken man. Or so it would seem.
He was acquitted last week by the Lille criminal court of aggravated pimping and organising an international chain of prostitution, but his reputation is nonetheless in ruins. Ever since he was taken off an Air France flight in handcuffs by New York police in May 2011, and charged with raping a maid in the Manhattan Sofitel — a case dropped after his accuser was deemed an unreliable witness — he has been living a nightmare.
No sooner was one charge dropped than another sprang up. Back in Paris, a young female journalist accused him of attempted rape during a magazine interview. When this case too was dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence, the pimping investigation began. A parallel charge of gang rape, carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years, was withdrawn in 2012. But in preparation for the pimping trial, two examining magistrates spent four years transcribing hundreds of pages of text messages and emails. During the three-week trial, an extraordinary picture of DSK’s downtime emerged. Hours were passed in the company of a Belgian pimp called ‘Dodo la Saumure’, proprietor of ‘le Dodo Sex Klub’. Afternoons were spent arranging meetings on the Belgian frontier, or in Madrid, or in Washington, where expensive locations were hired and his friends including a Lille CID inspector flew in with what DSK called ‘the equipment’ (young prostitutes).
Seated in court among the seedy crew of 14 co-accused, DSK maintained an impassive countenance while his unusual personal life was detailed. Under a three-day cross-examination he remained frank, correct and polite. Asked to explain the flat in Paris that he rented ‘in secret’, he explained that he was married at the time (to the Franco-American heiress Anne Sinclair) and he did not want his wife to know about his ‘sexual activities with young girls’, so he asked a friend to sign the lease. According to the prosecution, the apartment was kitted out with everything a professional pimp would need to make business go with a swing.
As a succession of prostitutes gave evidence against him, describing in detail his particular interests, DSK was revealed to be an aggressive and brutal client. But he also became an international figure of fun. The court heard discussions about how many elderly gentlemen could fit into the same double bed and how many had to relocate to the en-suite bathroom. The Daily Mail described him as ‘a rutting chimpanzee’.
And then, after almost all the evidence had been heard, the public prosecutor stood up in court and announced that he was going to ask the judge to acquit the principal accused. The court had heard no evidence that DSK had organised or benefited from any of the sexual encounters, he said, and there was no evidence that he had personally paid the girls. The trial had been distorted by the charging of Mr Strauss-Kahn. It had become a political and media event. The two examining magistrates who had conducted the preliminary investigation had been blinded by DSK’s eminence. The fact that he was a powerful man did not justify a presumption of guilt. The criminal court was not a court of morals. Mr Strauss-Kahn had already lost his job, his honour and his good name, and he should be acquitted. The judge followed this advice. And so Dominique Strauss-Kahn left the courtroom and repaired to Morocco, where he owns an agreeable villa. His parting words, according to some reports, were, ‘Is that it? What a lot of fuss.’
The only one of his co-accused to be found guilty received a very light suspended sentence. But seven journalists are being investigated for contempt of court, having published confidential prosecution evidence before the trial opened.
The nearest British equivalent to the trial of DSK was probably the Old Bailey trial of the leader of the Liberal party, the Rt Hon. Jeremy Thorpe, in 1979. Though Thorpe, too, was given the benefit of the doubt and acquitted (of conspiracy to murder), it was without any question the end of his public life. But France, to the surprise of some British commentators, remains a foreign country. Even before the verdict, DSK’s opinion-poll rating had begun to rise. L’Express magazine greeted the news with speculation on his chances of making a political comeback, noting that he remains a trusted economic and financial adviser in Russia and Eastern Europe. Today, 79 per cent of French voters — though up to speed on his moral standards — still consider that DSK would have made a better choice for president in 2012 than François Hollande.
There are several explanations for this phenomenon. Many in France will interpret the public prosecutor’s angry condemnation of the examining magistrates’ case as an allegation that it had been a ‘political trial’. The criminal courts are frequently used in France to settle political scores. When the initial accusation was made against DSK, the president of the republic was Nicolas Sarkozy. In May 2011, Sarkozy was 12 months away from a re-election campaign that he seemed unlikely to win. Sarkozy has himself been the target of political charges in the criminal courts and is a master of the black arts of both prosecuting and defending against such attacks. It was Sarkozy who appointed DSK to the IMF job in Washington, in the full knowledge of his uncontrollable sexual energy.
If the Lille charges of aggravated pimping should never have been brought, and the accusation of rape in New York should never have been taken seriously, Strauss-Kahn’s supporters will argue that the only stain on his record is the allegation that he once leapt on a young reporter and rolled around the floor with her trying to remove her bra; which would certainly not have been enough to prevent him from winning the Socialist nomination in 2012.
By his own admission DSK is rough, aggressive and obsessed with sex. He is even prepared to describe his behaviour on occasion towards women as ‘inappropriate’, a reaction that has naturally infuriated women all over France. But none of that is enough to drive him into political extinction. In France, standards of political morality and attitudes to women are changing, but rather slowly. The traditional respect for personal privacy and indifference to illicit sexual activity by politicians remain almost as strong as ever. The ‘rutting chimpanzee’ could still make a comeback.