With the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster – possibly directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Harrison Ford or Gene Hackman – the alleged “liaison dangereuse” of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is set to have soapie fans, editors and economists picking every bone of what the French, with typically Gallic tongue-in-cheek savoir faire, call “chaud lapin” – the hot rabbit. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
If this were not actually happening to one of the world’s most powerful men, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the mighty International Monetary Fund, it could sound like a script treatment for “Law and Order”, with that ominous sound punctuating each new step in Strauss-Kahn’s growing humiliation as he moves ever deeper into the American criminal justice system charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York. The humiliation is that much the deeper for putting what was increasingly being seen as his likely success in the next French presidential election to replace Nikolas Sarkozy now out of reach as well – even if he ultimately prevails in his legal trial.
Then, suddenly, but not unexpectedly, late on Wednesday night Strauss-Kahn stopped being a global financial boss, bowing to the inevitable and resigned from the IMF, even as he continued to insist on his innocence. The IMF said Strauss-Kahn explained his decision saying he was resigning “with infinite sadness”. Strauss-Kahn added, “I want to protect this institution which I have served with honour and devotion, and especially – especially – I want to devote all my strength, all my time and all my energy to proving my innocence.” Tendering a formal letter of resignation to the board, he denied, “with the greatest possible firmness all of the allegations that have been made against me”. There have been no demonstrations by furious international economists demanding he stay on, steer the IMF and fight the charges.
Many French citizens have reacted with shame or anger at media images of the rumpled “DSK”, being led off to Rikers Island in handcuffs after his request for bail was denied. These followed his being charged with five counts of sexual and assault charges. Some are angry at this public humiliation of a major French political figure at the hands of the American justice system and the fanatical Puritanism – and hypocrisy – of American society. Others are just flat out embarrassed at this stain on French honour.
Still others are muttering darkly about possible plots by Sarkozy allies against a powerful rival and likely candidate under the socialist banner – or even American retribution against the French for their lackadaisical treatment of Roman Polanski after he fled American justice for his own sexual assault crime years ago.
Strauss-Kahn was apprehended after boarding an Air France flight before takeoff. At his arraignment, images of him, dishevelled and handcuffed, were shown around the world. Although DSK has, so far, only had a bail hearing, at least some of the facts do not appear to be in dispute. Strauss-Kahn was staying in a suite at the very swanky, very expensive, Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan – in a suite that costs around $3,000 a night.
At the first hearing he offered a cool million bucks as bail, but the judge initially rejected the offer. He was finally released after further negotiations included an offer of house arrest at his daughter’s home in Manhattan (later switched to a corporate apartment from a security company) and an electronic anklet to monitor his movements, in addition to a whopping big wad of cash, all in an effort to spring him from Rikers Island before his case goes to the grand jury for indictments.
The facts are still hazy, but most agree that the unnamed maid at the Sofitel Hotel apparently entered DSK’s suite, assuming it was unoccupied. As she started to tidy up, she was confronted by the figure of Dominique Strauss-Kahn – allegedly wearing only his birthday suit. It is alleged that he then proceeded to forcibly have his way with her before she was able to break free. DSK’s attorney, by contrast, seems poised to argue that if he actually did engage in sexual acts with her, they were consensual ones, apparently because she was desperate to have a quick assignation with a rich, naked, 62-year-old international economist she had never met. Her lawyer contends she had no idea who he was and that her only intention was to take care of the towels and bedclothes.
What is also known about that housekeeper is that she is a widow from Guinea with a teenage child who sought and received political asylum in the US eight years ago.
Hotel management experts have explained that recordings from the hotel’s electronic room key system will be crucial in any trial. They will be able to demonstrate whether or not, upon entering, the maid kept the door partially open while carrying out her tasks – as most hotels now require. Such evidence would almost certainly militate against her being party to any sort of hanky-panky while in DSK’s room. Then there is also the likelihood the hotel’s CCTV system will offer additional evidence of who was where, doing and wearing what – or not.
Photo: Wife of former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anne Sinclair (L) walks with her daughter Camille as they depart Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, May 19, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar
We also know now that DSK has already been required to give the samples needed for DNA testing. So, we’ll soon enough end up knowing much more about the ins-and-outs of his samples, and what they represent.
Moreover, at Rikers Island prison, DSK is now being housed in a ward separated from most other awaiting-trial prisoners. After his initial intake warders determined he might even be a suicide risk. We also know he has been charged with a pretty daunting list of crimes: criminal sexual act in the first degree, two counts (maximum sentence 25 years); attempted rape in the first degree, one count (up to 15 years); sexual abuse in the first degree, one count (up to seven years); unlawful imprisonment in the second degree, one count (up to one year); forcible touching, one count (up to one year); and sexual abuse in the third degree, one count (up to three months). That latter charge usually refers to forced oral sex.
Within a day or so of this extraordinary series of events, the chorus, or drum beat, depending on which cliché one prefers, had already started up to press for Strauss-Kahn’s resignation from the IMF. Simultaneously, the list of potential replacements has grown rapidly. Traditionally an American has headed the World Bank, while a European has heade the IMF.
But this time with Strauss-Kahn’s humiliation already a global event, there is pressure to pick someone from one of the rapidly developing economies of the globe – someone such as Trevor Manuel, the well-regarded former finance minister of South Africa, for example. Other leading candidates include Egypt’s Mohamed El-Erian, Israel’s Stanley Fischer, the UK’s Gordon Brown, Peer Steinbruck of Germany, India’s Montek Singh Ahluwalia, France’s Christine Lagarde and Mexico’s Agustin Carstens. Even before Strauss-Kahn resigned, US treasury secretary Tim Geithner went public with his belief it was time for DSK to make way for someone less tainted. Other senior figures had noted rather wryly it would have been hard to manage the IMF while DSK was doing hard time in the big house, upstate.
Of course, while Strauss-Kahn’s downfall has been big news in the US, it has not exactly escaped coverage in Europe either. The French, of course, have lots of opinions about DSK’s problems and how those problems bleed over into France’s political future. And the discussion is also – once again – about how differently Americans and Europeans are presumed to think about the relationship between politics and sex.
In this view, Europeans are assumed to be more mature and relaxed about such goings on. Consider popular cultural exemplars like the ancient roué, Honoré Lachaille, in the film “Gigi”, or the Vicomte de Valmont of “Dangerous Liaisons”. Or reach back a bit further to the pride Don Giovanni’s servant feels in his master’s conquests when he sings “…this is a list of the beauties my master has loved, A list which I have compiled. Observe, read along with me. In Italy, six hundred and forty; In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one; A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one; But in Spain already one thousand and three.”
They also offer the real-life examples of the thrice-married Dominique Strauss-Kahn (at least until his recent problems in New York), Italian president Silvio Berlusconi and his extraordinary sexual history or former French president François Mitterand with his only partially secret “second family”. And such an argument then points to that French phrase, the “chaud lapin”, or hot rabbit, that term of art for a great man of world affairs who also behaves like, well, the way a rabbit naturally does. One wonders, however, if European women have quite the same sense of things.
The French point to examples of how American society and politics have punished male politicians who stray – cue those poster child examples of Nelson Rockefeller, Gary Hart or John Edwards and how they were run out of elective politics after they were exposed as having had an affair or two or three. But, of course, there is the great über-counter-example of Bill Clinton – turn up the soundtrack of “Stand by Your Man”? In fact, Robert Penn Warren’s novel, “All the King’s Men”, about a sexually charged politician in Louisiana who sounded a lot like Huey Long, spoke so knowingly about the eternal relationship of money and political power as the all-purpose aphrodisiacs – and how sex influences the former two. And it was this novel, of course, that was the model for another roman a clef novel, “Primary Colors,” the book that followed the circumstances of a politician who, in turn, seemed a lot like Bill Clinton. The fate of potential Republican Party presidential nominee Newt Gingrich and the implications of his complex past history may be a test case of whether there is a newer American sensibility on this topic.
Perhaps it is more an issue of honour that simply sex? The New York Times’ weekly colloquy between conservative columnist David Brooks and liberal Gail Collins points to this question. After discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s current crisis with infidelity, they wrote the other day:
“David Brooks: The second case is DSK, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I’m in London today and it’s interesting — the European reaction is almost aristocratic. There are obvious stories about the future of French politics, but the big word being thrown around in the French and British press is “honor.” His behavior dishonors France.
“Gail Collins: Well, yeah. If it takes this for France to feel dishonored, they need to raise the bar. And all of us need to draw a very bright line between politicians who have sex out of wedlock and politicians who — if the charges are true — grab an innocent woman who just came to do the cleaning and sexually assault her. This is sick, it’s criminal, and as Jon Stewart pointed out, a really unflattering metaphor about the International Monetary Fund’s dealings with Africa.
“David Brooks: Still, I’m glad to see that the concept of collective honor exists. I think we all have it and we all feel intensely shamed or honored by the groups we are part of, but we don’t talk much about the way these emotions propel us because we’re not used to thinking about group psychology.
“Gail Collins: Also, maybe some shame for the French Socialists that this all happened in a $3,000-a-night hotel room.”
Finally, of course, there is the effect on France’s political future. Dominique Strauss-Kahn had been expected to be the Socialist Party’s winning candidate in the next French presidential election. He was supposed to be the one who would banish the increasingly erratic Nikolas Sarkozy to a political exile and offer up a personable, smart, savvy, economist and global citizen who could advance French civilization’s impact on the world. Now Strauss-Kahn’s party has to go back to the drawing board to sort out who will lead it into next year’s election.
Curiously, Strauss-Kahn seemed to anticipate his problems with women might become a political liability in France’s presidential election. The French daily Liberation reported this week that Strauss-Kahn had told them a month earlier his presidential campaign might be subjected to low blows over “money, women and my Jewishness” (presumably channelling the Dreyfus Affair that so fractured French politics and society at the end of the 19th century). Strauss-Kahn also theorised his enemies might try to pay someone to accuse him of rape, according to the newspaper. On the face of it, of course, it doesn’t seem the Sarkozy forces had to do much on that score, DSK having done so much to further such accusations all by himself.
Until his New York trip, Strauss-Kahn held numerous positions in government, including a stint as finance minister, taught economics and in his tenure at the IMF since 2007, restored its lustre and relevance by helping lead international efforts to deal with the growing sovereign debt crisis among the European Union nations. But there was another side to his life.
His track record of three marriages, whispered charges of other sexual indiscretions and predatory attacks on other women, as well as a more widely known episode within the IMF of an affair with a deputy, Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian economist at the IMF, had generated some internal muttering and criticism, but no disciplinary action. A 2006 book, “Sexus Politicus” by Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois had included a chapter on Strauss-Kahn and his tendency to “seduction to the point of obsession”. Then, a year later, French journalist Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent for Liberation, had written on his blog that Strauss-Kahn “verges on harassment” with his behaviour towards women. Then in 2008, DSK had admitted to his affair with Nagy, but was cleared of abuse and, most recently, French writer Tristane Banon came forward to say Strauss-Kahn tried to assault her in 2002. While she did not go to the police, she did raise the allegation in a TV chat show in 2007, although Strauss-Kahn’s name was bleeped out during the actual broadcast.
Perhaps all of these simply contribute to a growing sense of hubris on Strauss-Kahn’s part, allowing him to think that, like Icarus, he could fly as close to the Sun as he wished. In this version, Strauss-Kahn could simply sail above criticism by virtue of his status, his third wife’s money and her apparent willingness to tolerate his wandering eye and hands and whatever else. Or, maybe DSK believed he held a sort of 21st century version of “le droit du seigneur” that allowed high-flyer international economic policymakers to do whatever they wished, whenever they wished, simply because they were whoever they were.
At this point, while Strauss-Kahn’s direct, personal future remains unclear, it is almost a guarantee that the made-for-television movie makers are already circling the scene, getting ready to sign up the maid, the police, the lawyers and maybe even DSK himself for the rights to make the show. This is the way of things now. America abhors a secret. On this you can bet the suite. DM
For more, read:
Photo: Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn gestures during his bail hearing inside of the New York State Supreme Courthouse in New York May 19, 2011.Strauss-Kahn was granted bail by a New York judge on Thursday, and the former IMF chief has vowed to fight charges that he tried to rape a hotel maid in Manhattan. REUTERS/Richard Drew.
Despite receiving a knighthood from the Queen, Bill Gates cannot use the title "Sir" due to his being American.