Dominique Strauss-Kahn: What's in a reputation?

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn reveals an uncomfortable truth about the disfunctional relationship between French politics, privacy laws and the press, says John Lichfield

Dominique Strauss-Kahn could have been President of France. It is probably true to say that, 12 months from now, he would have been President. Yesterday he appeared in a New York courtroom accused of "attempted rape" and "sexual assault". He dismisses the allegations, but his presidential ambitions – never openly declared – are clearly over. Whatever the truth, it is impossible to imagine that this miserable affair could be settled before the deadline for "DSK" to enter the French Socialist primary in late June.

It is hazardous to comment on any "he said, she-said" sexual allegation. It is a fact, however, that the Parisian media-political village has known, and sniggered, for years at DSK's reputation. He was, it was said, not just a man who had frequent sexual affairs. That was common enough in French politics and resolutely not something that the French media bothered with. The unpublished reports about DSK went further. He was, it was said, a man who could not safely be left alone with a young woman.

Is that not a relevant piece of information about a politician – however brilliant, however charismatic – who has topped the presidential opinion polls for months? And yet, with one or two brief, noble exceptions, the French media threw a veil over the darker side of DSK's relations with women until Saturday evening, when he was arrested in New York and charged with the attempted rape of a chambermaid in a Manhattan hotel.

Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62, strenuously denies the charges. He is innocent until proven guilty. It may be that DSK's idea of an aggressive sexual proposal is other people's idea of sexual assault. It may be that DSK's reputation has encouraged persons unknown to organise a giant conspiracy and set a trap for him. DSK's lawyers, it is reported, will suggest that he was not even in the hotel at the time of the alleged attack. The French language internet was teeming yesterday with unlikely theories, blaming Washington or the Élysée Palace, or his Socialist presidential rivals for the alleged events in his $3,000-a-night suite in the Sofitel in Times Square on Saturday afternoon.

Is DSK a victim of a plot or a lie? Maybe. But he may also be a victim of his own arrogance and sense of immunity. A sense of untouchability on "affaires de moeurs" (sexual questions) is shared by many French politicians. Not all have a reputation for forcing their attentions on young women.

Mr Strauss-Kahn, it emerged yesterday, has been the subject of similar allegations in France, which have never been made public. Tristane Banon, 31, a French journalist and writer, said that she would take belated legal action against Mr Strauss-Kahn for what she described as a sexual attack on her in 2002.

At the time, she said, she was persuaded not to press charges by her mother, who had family and political links with him. DSK's own daughter was one of Ms Banon's best friends.

In 2007, the young woman told of her ordeal in an interview with a French TV chat show. The show made compellingly prurient TV but cowardly journalism and politics. Each reference to Mr Strauss-Kahn's name was bleeped out.

In 2002, at the age of 22, Ms Banon said she had gone along to interview DSK in an empty flat for her first book. "He [name withheld] wanted to hold my hand, then my arm," she told the TV show. "We ended up scuffling on the ground. I kicked him. He unfastened my bra and tried to take down my jeans.

"I used the word 'rape' to try to scare him. It didn't scare him. He was like a champanzee in rut."

Just an isolated incident? In 2007, the same year as Ms Banon's TV interview, Mr Strauss-Kahn's name was put forward by France to be chief executive of the International Monetary Fund. The Brussels correspondent of the newspaper, Libération, Jean Quatremer, wrote a blog begging President Nicolas Sarkozy to reconsider.

"The only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his attitude to women," Mr Quatremer wrote. "He is too insistent... he often borders on harassment. The IMF is an international institution with Anglo-Saxon morals. One inappropriate gesture, one unfortunate comment, and there will be a media hue and cry."

Mr Quatremer's blog was immediately attacked in the French press for "crossing a yellow line". He was criticised in a column in his own newspaper by the media commentator, Daniel Schneidermann, who asked why French journalists felt able to make such allegations on the internet but not in print.

Mr Schneidermann went on to admit, however, that DSK's reputation as an aggressive womaniser was well-known.

"I have... heard many reports, some at first hand, from women journalists who have been subject to 'disturbing advances' from Mr Strauss-Kahn during interviews," he wrote.

For the past 12 months or more, DSK has been the opinion poll favourite to win the Socialist nomination in October and go on to win the French presidency next spring. In that time, there have often been veiled references to his reputation as a "libertine" or "womaniser", but nothing in the mainstream media suggesting that this went further than concensual, casual affairs. In an interview with Libération last month, DSK boasted about his own reputation. He said he saw three obstacles to his undeclared ambition to be the President: "Lolly, women and my Jewishness."

By "lolly" (he used the word "fric"), Mr Strauss-Kahn meant not the cost of campaigning, but public disapproval of his own great fortune, which is actually that of his wife, the TV celebrity and art dealership heiress, Anne Sinclair.

Within a couple of days, a strident scandal had broken out in the French media because DSK was photo-graphed stepping into a Porsche belonging to a friend. Allegations that he was "flash" and "super-rich" and owned €30,000 suits so could not therefore be a "real socialist" filled the French blogosphere. Hints on the web that DSK might be a sexual predator never had that kind of impact.

On the "women" question, in his interview with Libération, DSK was smug. He almost seemed to invite exposure. "Yes, I like women. So what?" he said. "For years there has been talk of photos [of me] taking part in giant orgies but I've never seen anything published... Let them show us what they've got."

Who Mr Strauss-Kahn meant by "them" was not clear. Suggestions that he may have been the victim of a political plot were rife in France yesterday. This was not just the usual internet theorising. Most street and bar conversations – most political conversations – were based on the belief that DSK was either "set up" or "framed".

But framed by who? Some left-wing politicians hint that Washington wanted DSK out of the IMF because he was going to make difficulties for the US budget deficit. But it was very likely that DSK would declare himself a French presidential candidate next month and have to leave the non-political IMF in any case.

And what of the Élysée Palace? Could forces close to Nicolas Sarkozy have decided to destroy the President's potential rival? Hardly likely. Mr Sarkozy has always said privately that he did not fear a DSK candidacy. If the Élysée wanted to blow Mr Strauss-Kahn out of the water, would it not have been better to wait until he was the anointed Socialist contender after the open primary in October?

Nonetheless, the conspiracy talk thrives. Gilles Savary, a friend of DSK and Socialist Euro MP, said that the presidential front-runner was an easy and obvious target.

"To be honest, everyone knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine," he said in his blog. "He is only different from lots of others by not hiding the fact. In puritan America, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism, they tolerate money games but not the pleasures of the flesh. So it is easy to trap a public figure who is so little resistant to feminine charms as DSK."

To describe allegations of attempted rape as a weakness for the "pleasures of the flesh" and "lack of resistance to feminine charms" is disgraceful.

Commentary in France was divided yesterday – and not necessarily on right-left lines. There were many, like Mr Savary, who instinctively wished to minimise or dismiss out of hand the allegations against Mr Strauss-Kahn. Other commentators said that France – and especially the French media – should take an opportunity to look at itself in the mirror.

In an essay in Le Monde, Christophe Deloire, co-author of Sexus Politicus (Albin Michel, 2006) – a book unmasking hypocrisy about politics and sex in France – said the "DSK affair" should be a watershed in French political-media relations. For too long, he said, French political journalists had been content to write elaborate theoretical pieces about campaign tactics or abstract ideas without investigating the lives or true natures of French politicians.

During the last election campaign in 2007, both the main candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, had split with their partners but nothing much was written in the French press. The splits spoke eloquently about each candidate and the motivation for their campaigns. Most French voters, outside the Paris media village, were allowed to know nothing.

In the case of DSK – and the evidence of his predatory attitude towards women – the French media, Mr Deloire suggested, had a duty to write about such things. Privacy should be trumped, he said, by what George Orwell called "common decency": the simple morality and honesty that rules the lives of most ordinary people.

Mr Deloire is also the director of the French media training school, the Centre de Formation des Journalistes (CFJ). When he wrote about DSK's attitude to women in his book, he met silence or hostility on the part of the mainstream French media.

By their failure to address these issues – whatever truth finally emerges about the DSK affair – the French media and politicians were, he said yesterday, widening the gulf between "people" and the "system". Small wonder that French politics was being hijacked by populists of the far right and far left.

Mr Deloire is right. The French media and French justice systems have an extravagant definition of the extents of "privacy" for public figures. Consensual extramarital affairs are one thing. Sexual harassment, bordering on assault is another.

The British media may be guilty of being too prurient about the private activities of politicians; the French media is too supine.

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