Sex scandal plunges IMF chief from hero to zero

2011-05-21 11:48

Political life in France stopped at dawn last Sunday morning.

The news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on board a Paris-bound Air France flight by the New York City police department after he allegedly attempted to rape a chambermaid in a ­hotel in mid-town Manhattan came as a heart-stopping shock for a whole ­nation.

I saw many jaws drop upon hearing the news. The first reaction was one of utter disbelief: impossible, said many people; this is a set-up. So did a few French MPs, from across the political spectrum.

He must have fallen into a honey trap, they said in substance. And how stupid of him, many added.

At first, it was difficult indeed to feel anything but bewilderment. The man was, literally, on top of the world.

One of the most powerful men in the world, DSK, as he’s known in France and Washington, was on his way to meet ­German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the police hustled him away to a Harlem police station.

DSK’s work at the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had ­restored the world institution’s standing, and his management of the world ­economic crisis, and of Greece, Ireland and Portugal’s bail-outs, had awed many governments around the world.

He was about to declare his candidacy for the 2012 French ­presidential elections and polls had placed him far ahead of every other ­contender, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy included.

DSK was tipped to ­become France’s next president, and many French people were relying on him to put an end to Sarkozy’s five disastrous years in power.

And here he was suddenly, le roi nu (the naked king), relegated to playing a louche character in a bad US TV cop series.

Now, to the question many British and American observers ask: Why is it such a surprise for the French to hear that the irrepressible womaniser DSK is charged with sexual assault?

Womanising is no crime, and in France men are culturally allowed to court ­women in ways that would be considered sexual harassment in the United States.

French women learn from an early age to dismiss such behaviour as childish but not as criminal.

DSK has never tried to conceal his reputation as a séducteur, and he is respected for his intelligence and charm. However, being a séducteur and being a rapist is worlds apart, and the charge of attempted rape is as grave in France as anywhere else.

French, British and Americans don’t differ on this.

Since he was arrested by the New York Police, another case has emerged in Paris against him.

The 31-year-old writer Tristane Banon has come forward to reveal that nine years ago she was the subject of sexual assault by DSK.

Many French observers asked why she was coming out with this now, but a few French journalists have started asking soul-searching questions: “Why haven’t we looked more into his private life?” asked editorialist Pierre Haski.

We didn’t because in France what would most ­likely be called insistent male courting is ­tolerated.

French journalists may have started their mea culpa, but French ­citizens are reeling over the images of a handcuffed Strauss-Kahn.

Political commentators on TV looked as haggard and ashen-faced as DSK ­standing in front of Judge Melissa ­Jackson.

Veteran commentator Olivier ­Mazerolle on the news channel BMF TV was at a loss for words, in a state of total shock. To tell you the truth, so were we all in front of our television.

The case saw another dramatic ­development when Jackson ­refused to ­release DSK on bail.

On Friday, however, he was granted bail of $6 million but will have to wear an electronic bracelet and will be under armed guard 24 hours a day in a Manhattan apartment at least until the next hearing on June 6.

Was DSK treated like any other citizen, people in Paris asked?

If he were, he’d be ­released on bail, wouldn’t he? The whole nation was too stunned to actually try to understand. It had been a momentous 36 hours, and we all needed rest.

Especially the French Socialist Party. It now has a few weeks to dissociate itself from a man who, even if proven innocent in six months, is now politically dead.

But until proven guilty, DSK ­remains innocent.

The Socialists are in an impossible ­situation. Could second fiddle François Hollande step in with as much authority, competence and intelligence as DSK? He will have to.

Hollande now has an invigorated ­ Sarkozy and an increasingly ­popular Marine le Pen, of the far-right National Front, to fight. At least, he can claim one crucial asset: he is not a séducteur.

Poirier is a French journalist and writer based in London. Her latest book in English is Touché: A French Woman’s Take on the English. Copyright © 2011 The Nation. Distributed by Agence Global

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