The arrest of International Montetary Fund (IMF) head Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault in New York City has thrown French presidential politics into disarray. Prior to his alleged sodomy of a 32-year-old chambermaid at Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who recently announced his resignation from the IMF, was leading in the polls to replace incumbent French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Most affected by the scandal is France’s Socialist Party, which must now find another candidate to replace its disgraced standard-bearer. In the meantime, leftists defending one of their own have been shameless, mixing equal parts of attacking the alleged victim with an odious denial of Strauss-Kahn’s long track record of “seduction.”
The onslaught has been relentless. French newspaper Le Monde and the French version of Slate Magazine have printed the woman’s name, with Le Monde adding information about the size of her breasts and the shape of her behind. A photo of the alleged victim has been revealed on Twitter, and a Facebook profile of her was linked to blogs and other social media sites before it was deleted. Bernard Henri-Lévy, who once called it “shameful to throw a 76-year-old man into prison for unlawful sex committed 32 years ago,” in reference to sexual predator Roman Polanski, is using one of the left’s favorite expressions when it comes to defending Strauss-Kahn. Henri-Lévy contends that Strauss-Kahn, more familiarly known as DSK, is a victim of sexual “McCarthyists” and “nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs” which one would assume is a reference to the American justice system.
Leftist politicians were quick to follow suit. Socialist Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Gilles Savary, while admitting that “[E]veryone knows it’s true to say that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a hedonist,” declared that the real problem is American culture “where everything is shaped by unforgiving Protestantism[.]” Socialist Party Member of Parliament (MP) Jean-Marie Le Guen contended, “[W]hat they are asking us to believe…it’s just hallucinations. I’m a doctor and I know this can happen,” adding that pictures of DSK in handcuffs are “hyper violent.“ Socialist politician and Strauss-Kahn loyalist Manuel Valls described the handcuffing as “an unbearable cruelty…Political life in France, will now be remembered as being before and after this moment.”
Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) leader Jean-Francois Cope was worried about France’s international image. “Just think of this photograph being shown over and over again all over the world,” he lamented. ”In the space of 15 days the new idol of the French left has exploded,” he added. Christian Boutin, leader of France’s Christian Democratic Party believes Strauss-Kahn “must have been trapped,” an idea shared by Paris regional councilor Michelle Sabban who is convinced the alleged assault “is an international conspiracy,” adding that “[E]veryone knows that his weakness is seduction, women. That’s how they got him.”
Ms. Sabban is certainly correct about Strauss-Kahn’s “weakness.” His nickname is the “Great Seducer” which suggests that charm, rather than force, is how he gets his way with women. That may have been true with respect to a 2008 affair with married IMF subordinate Piroska Nagy, which Strauss-Kahn characterized as ”an error of judgment.“ But Nagy herself described the encounter as one in which she was “pressured” to have sex, characterizing DSK as ”a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command.”
Yet another story paints a far darker picture. In 2002, journalist Tristane Banon tried to interview Strauss-Kahn, but was allegedly sexually assaulted in the process. “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.
Why didn’t she file charges? Her own mother, Anne Mansouret, a Socialist Party member, dissuaded her. She justified that decision, telling reporters she believed Strauss-Kahn’s behavior was “out of character,” a move she now regrets. ”Today I am sorry to have discouraged my daughter from complaining. I bear a heavy responsibility,” she said. Incredibly, during the same interview, Mansouret still tried to make excuses for her daughter’s tormentor, calling Strauss-Kahn ”an otherwise warm, sympathetic and extremely talented man.“ Regardless of her mother’s misguided sentiments, Ms. Banon intends to pursue a legal claim against DSK.
It gets worse. El Universal, a Mexican newspaper, is reporting that Strauss-Kahn allegedly assaulted a maid in that country as well, basing the story on a book, “D.S.K.: The Secrets of a Presidential Contender,“ written by a former collaborator of Strauss-Kahn’s who used the pseudonym “Cassandre.” The book also alleges he sexually assaulted another 14 women as well. The Daily Mail is reporting that Strauss-Kahn “also allegedly had relationships with several high profile French literary figures, including playwright Yasmina Reza..and Spanish writer Carmen Llera.“ French Socialist politician Auriele Filippetti claims Strauss-Kahn “groped her” in 2008.
How has DSK managed to keep his reputation under the radar? Libération journalist Jean Quatremer addresses the issue, noting that “having written about [DSK’s reputation with women] in July 2007… I incurred the wrath of some of my colleagues and part of the political class.” In fact, Mr. Quatremer’s blog was immediately and heavily criticized by the French press for “crossing a yellow line.“ IFOP pollster Jerome Fourquet noted that France ”is not in an Anglo-Saxon country, and stories of cheating and affairs or adultery make us smile,” before qualifying that statement by saying, “a rape attempt – this is different.” And when alleged sexual victim Tristane Banon appeared on a French TV show in 2007 to talk about her 2002 ordeal, every reference to Strauss-Kahn’s name was bleeped out.
Prospect Magazine columnist Tim King explains the genesis of the French media’s “remarkable solidarity with a man who has been accused of attempted rape,” which has resulted in 57 per cent of French voters believing that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a setup. ”France, as is widely known, is run by a small elite, educated in two or at most three very small, misnamed grandes écoles, taught by the same teachers and, in their pursuit of high marks, regurgitating the same ideas to please the same examiners,” he writes. “They graduate into France’s top jobs: administration, politics and the media. They remain close to each other. Some marry others from the same school. In later life, if they continue to please their examiners, they become senior politicians, top journalists, media editors.”
DSK was no exception. Despite leading in the polls, he had never formally declared his intention to run for president. But even prior to this latest episode, his poll numbers had been declining. Not because of his alleged reputation as the “Great Seducer,” but because his lavish lifestyle, reportedly underwritten by wife Anne Sinclair, a TV celebrity in her own right and an heiress as well, had alienated a large segment of the public.
Why would such a man appeal to French Socialists? The answer is that he didn’t appeal to the party’s hard-left faction, but to the so-called moderate French voter in general, due in large part to his economic acumen as well as his previous track record in government as a junior Minister for Industry and Foreign Trade from 1991-1993, and Minister of Economics, Finance, and Industry from 1997-1999. During that last two year stint, he earned the admiration of his party’s rank and file when he catered to the immigrant community in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb. He resigned from government at that point to fight corruption charges against him for which he was eventually cleared. In 2007, he ran for the Socialist Party’s presidential nomination, but was trounced by 40 points. Seemingly out of government, he was appointed to head the IMF by Nicolas Sarkozy, who likely believed it would be a graceful way to usher DSK out of power permanently.
The financial crisis of 2008 propelled Strauss-Kahn back into the spotlight, and seemingly back into the hearts of the French electorate who saw him as a possible savior of the economy. His chances grew even better back in March when President Sarkozy’s UMP party was soundly defeated in regional elections, taking 35 percent of the popular vote, compared with 54 percent for the Socialists. The far-right National Front took nearly 18 percent in the 12 regions where it qualified after a runoff election.
Yet even with the sex scandal unfolding, Mr. Sarkozy, who undoubtedly benefits from DSK’s political ruination, remains cautious. Perhaps sensing he can win over some of Strauss-Kahn’s centrist supporters, he reportedly urged members of his party in a private meeting to “keep calm and display a sense of dignity and decency.”
UMP party member Michel Debre refused to remain silent. “It’s not the first time that DSK is involved in this kind of actions [sic] at the Sofitel,” he was quoted as saying on the Internet site of weekly L’Express. “That’s where he always stayed. It happened several times and for several years.” Front National party leader Marine Le Pen, who represents France’s blue collar voters and anti-immigration sentiment, was even more direct. “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,” she said.
As for the Socialist Party itself, the internal battle to replace Strauss-Kahn has already begun. IFOP spokesman Jerome Fourquet and political analyst Stephane Rozes contend that former Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande is now the front-runner to replace Strauss-Kahn. ”He clearly gives the impression of a fierce and lasting desire to run,” Fourquet said. “In France we say the election is won by the person who wants to win it most.” Rozes added a different perspective. “DSK resembled Sarkozy, and in this regard Francois Hollande is much more dangerous for the president,” he said.
Socialist deputy Claude Bartolone has other ideas. “Let’s unite behind the person who has the legitimacy to represent this unity, the first secretary of the Socialist Party,” he said referring to Martine Aubry. Aubry remained noncommittal. ”Unity, responsibility, combativeness, these are the three words which came up the most this morning,” she told reporters after a meeting of party leaders Tuesday in Paris. ”There was emotion, of course, and the shock we all feel, but it is our responsibility to be up to the task [of replacing Strauss-Kahn].” Aubry feels optimistic about her party’s chances. “I say to the French people: we will be ready in 2012.”
Whether France is ready for Aubry remains in doubt: a small-sample Harris Interactive poll in French newspaper Le Parisien has Hollande at 49 percent, Aubry 23 percent and Segolene Royal, defeated by Sarkozy in 2007, at 10 percent. For Aubry, this is quite a comedown from the Socialists’ victory in March for which she received a large degree of credit. Unfortunately, according to many analysts, she is dogged by a combative style and a lack of charisma.
Yet the French political landscape is certainly fluid at this juncture. To give one perspective on how quickly things have changed, a poll immediately preceding the above had Strauss-Kahn at 41 percent, Francois Hollande at 24 percent, and Martine Aubry at 18 percent. And there are additional Socialist Party candidates who might run, including Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who would be most appealing to the party’s left, and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who gained popularity for his out-of-the-box thinking on city projects.
France conducts its presidential election in two rounds, scheduled for April 29 and May 6, 2012. The Socialist Party’s primary will be held in October. And despite the fact that President Sakozy has yet to officially announce his candidacy, his UMP Party has no primary scheduled at all. Tellingly, the last IFOP poll taken before his arrest had Strauss-Kahn eliminating Sarkozy in the first round by a margin of 26 percent to 21.5 percent. He would have faced Le Pen and her 22 percent of the vote total in a runoff.
And now it’s over. Strauss-Kahn sits in a cell at Riker’s Island accused of forcing a housekeeper to perform oral sex against her will. He has been denied bail due to the fact that he is considered a flight risk after authorities took him off an Air France plane bound for Paris last Saturday only minutes before takeoff and because France does not extradite citizens to the United States. Further complicating matters for Strauss-Kahn is a report that his alleged victim lives in a Bronx apartment building reserved for people with AIDS. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer Ben Branfman insists the sex was consensual. ”The evidence, we believe, will not be consistent with a forcible encounter,” he said. The alleged victim’s lawyer, Jeffrey Shapiro, was undeterred. “She will tell her story. She’s happy to do that because she’s telling the truth,” he said in an interview with Chris Wragge, co-anchor of “The Early Show” on CBS.
In the meantime, Strauss-Kahn, who is presumed innocent until proven guilty, remains on suicide watch at Rikers after undergoing a health exam. A grand jury has until Friday to decide whether or not the case goes to trial. Only the two people involved really know what happened. Hopefully, the truth, whatever it may be, will prevail.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.
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