Smoke and Fire: Why France Was Silent About Strauss-Kahn's Womanizing

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Yuri Gripas / Reuters

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at a news conference during the IMF–World Bank meetings in Washington on April 16, 2011

When news of the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn broke in France, Emmanuel Pierrat remembered the young woman who came seeking legal advice about half a decade ago. She said she had had an encounter with Strauss-Kahn and, says the lawyer Pierrat, "wanted to know whether I thought what I heard would form the basis for a solid legal case against him." Pierrat says the news out of New York City last weekend was "something I had heard before" because of what the young woman several years ago had described as "the modus operandi of the attacker, [whom] she said was Strauss-Kahn." Says Pierrat: [It] "was almost identical to the details [described by] the woman [who said she was] attacked Sunday in New York."

On Monday, Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a onetime likely presidential candidate in France, was arraigned in New York City on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape, including preventing a hotel worker at a Manhattan Sofitel from leaving his expensive quarters, groping her and forcing her to perform oral sex on him. He has pleaded not guilty; his legal team is reportedly planning to argue that the sex was consensual.

Recalling his experience with the client to TIME, Pierrat says he told the young woman that he believed she had a case. "There were sufficient elements for a legal complaint to be filed and for a judicial investigation into them to be granted," he says. But in the end, the woman chose not to go ahead. Pierrat explains that it was "because she knew there'd be a lot of public and media attention, knew she'd come under pressure, be cast as a liar, a woman who was looking for trouble, get tagged as the villain who took down Dominique Strauss-Kahn — or tried to. She knew there'd be a high price to pay for trying to do the right thing and knew she would probably be tarred for it."

"In addition to my client," says Pierrat, "I also have a personal friend who came to me and described an unwanted, forceful sexual advance by Strauss-Kahn that she was forced to literally fight off. They're all essentially the same account, the same kind of behavior, with only the places changed."

Even the well connected had qualms about confronting Strauss-Kahn. A regional Socialist Party official stepped up on Monday to say that her daughter had come under sexual attack during a 2002 interview with Strauss-Kahn. The official, Anne Mansouret, repeated the allegations made by her daughter Tristane Banon during a 2007 TV program about how a well-known politician [Strauss-Kahn's name was bleeped out] tried to overpower her with a sexual embrace. What took so long for Mansouret to back up her daughter and name Strauss-Kahn? She told French TV that she had dissuaded her daughter from filing charges because Strauss-Kahn was en route to greatness — and derailing the ascent of a fellow Socialist Party official would be bad form. She also said that because Strauss-Kahn's second wife was Banon's godmother, blowing the whistle on the alleged attacker would create rifts within Mansouret's circle of family, friends and intimates.

A Paris attorney who specializes in defending victims of sexual violence, who didn't want to be named, says he has "an entire pile of complaints" from women who say they were attacked by Strauss-Kahn. Like Pierrat, he says last weekend's news evoked déjà vu. And like Pierrat, he says he has a consistency of accusations against Strauss-Kahn. "It's all so similar," he says. "The lock thrown on the door, the pulled or ripped undergarments, the physical force that turned violent as resistance mounted, all of it. And frankly, this isn't at all incompatible with the skirt-chaser stories and reputation of an incorrigible ladies' man. [Strauss-Kahn's] defenders tend to say his conquests are seduction, and that while perhaps condemnable as adultery, they don't constitute rape. But there's another school of thought — favored by a lot of clinical specialists — who say someone that obsessed with sexual encounters is dysfunctional, an addict. They're dependent on them, and when denied or otherwise frustrated, they snap and try to take it anyway. They are sick, and when their sickness takes full control, they lose all logic, lose rationality, and all reason and consequence vanishes in the impulse and violence of the act."

No sexual-assault charges, however, were ever filed in France against Strauss-Kahn, who faces what may be a long legal procedure before a U.S. court can determine whether he is guilty or innocent of the New York City allegations. Still, his past behavior appears to indicate that he has troublesome issues with women who strike his fancy. In 2008, after Strauss-Kahn was reprimanded for his relationship with an IMF subordinate, the economist Piroska Nagy, for which he apologized, a few more people in France were willing to talk openly of his reputation — but only in a bantering, almost jokey way. Socialist parliamentarian Aurelie Filipetti admitted to a newspaper to having suffered a "very heavy-handed flirt" by Strauss-Kahn — one so unpleasant and insistent that "I made sure I was not in a closed room with him" ever again. On a radio show, one French actress asked out loud, "Who hasn't been cornered by Dominique Strauss-Kahn?"

"Everyone has heard the rumors — you'd have to be deaf not to have heard them," says Socialist Party member and former national Vice President on Social Affairs Malek Boutih, who makes no secret that he actively supports François Hollande's rival bid for the party's 2012 presidential candidacy, the one that Strauss-Kahn seemed destined to win before his arrest. Boutih, however, says he never saw those allegations substantiated. A French-American p.r. executive has also heard a lot of Strauss-Kahn stories but notes that the New York City accusation is of a different magnitude: "In my work, I deal with a lot of people from politics and business, and when the same stories about the same people keep coming around and adding up, you figure Strauss-Kahn can't always produce the same kind of smoke without there being a fire burning. And some of the people telling you this stuff do so approvingly — with that kind of 'Is he the man or what?!' admiration in their voices. It isn't just enemies, opponents and journalists circulating this stuff."

The executive takes pains to point out that there are different kinds of smoke and fire. "[Strauss-Kahn] clearly has sexual issues — not just how often he's 'on,' but also in his treatment of women. The guy's behavior is at times simply inappropriate, especially for a politician — and especially a politician who spends a lot of time in the U.S. I have three women friends who within the last two years told me they'd met Strauss-Kahn and been astounded at how quickly he'd asked for their mobile numbers. And each one told me that within a week of giving him their numbers, they'd gotten text messages from Strauss-Kahn inviting them to a hotel room he had rented. Three women, same story, same detail. Is it absolute proof his reputation is merited? No, but it supports that idea. But even if you can factually prove the man chases women as often as people say, there's still a big difference between that and attempted rape. The former is supposedly about loving women too much to limit yourself to just one. The latter isn't about loving women at all — it's about aggression, violence. Different categories there."

Then there is the French gender double standard — and the cult of what the French call the seducteur, the charmer, the operator. "It's not just that the word of a woman doesn't necessarily have the same weight as that of a man in many situations," says Rokhaya Diallo, president of Les Indivisibles, an association that promotes diversity in France. "It's that there's still this enduring attitude that seduction, conquests, affairs and flings by men is somehow O.K., even sort of admirable, while women who complain of sexual aggression are either making it up, or just having buyer's regret. Clear sexual violence is taken seriously and punished, but this wider tolerance of male conquest turns the other aspects of aggression gray in the minds of many people. Which I suppose is one reason people don't seem surprised to learn of Strauss-Kahn being caught in a sex scandal. His reputation led people to assume he'd be caught up in one sooner or later. The real debate is whether it involved sexual violence or not."

Strauss-Kahn may have been abetted by the fact that most of his so-called conquests involved ideological fellow travelers — as was reflected by the Banon case. Says the French lawyer who asked not to be named: "My clients and other women I've been contacted by with reports of sexual aggression by Strauss-Kahn were all either Socialist Party members, supporters, or involved in wider leftist political activity that eventually brought them into contact with Strauss-Kahn. He has said he loves women, but it seems more accurate to say he loves Socialist women. I suppose he viewed that milieu as providing his supply of new women, and as one where women who caught his eye would either be compliant, or keep quiet about having to fight off his advances. Either way, there are a lot more women — and men — in Socialists circles who know about his activity than have ever said so."

The case in New York City reflects another dimension of the problem in France. "If I try transposing the situation in New York on Sunday to France, I just can't do it," says Diallo. "Not only because the woman is black and apparently an immigrant. But also because she's a housekeeper. Perhaps even more than her race, her station in society would probably prevent authorities [in France] from taking her accusations against a rich and powerful man seriously. Racism is on the rise here again, but class discrimination has never gone away."

The pattern of French political behavior — in which class, rank and gender trump all — is long established. It probably had its archetypal manifestation during an off-the-record chat between then President François Mitterrand and a group of journalists. The President was widely known to have had a daughter out of wedlock, a fact that was never published or mentioned in the media. But one journalist had the temerity to bring it up. Mitterrand fixed the daring journalist in the eye, leaned across the table toward him, and mockingly replied, "Yes, I have a [bastard] daughter. Et, alors?!" The message was clear: Yeah, and it's none of your business, so keep your mouth shut and paper clear of it until I'm ready to inform the public, if you know what's good for you. There was no further mention of the situation until Mitterrand's funeral, when his mistress and the daughter appeared as chief mourners with his widow.

And so it was that during an April 28 Strauss-Kahn meeting with journalists from the daily Libération. Under informal conditions, the IMF boss let his hair down about his looming presidential bid and the points that his opponents would attack and carp on in the hopes of sinking his run for the Elysee. "Money, women and my Jewishness," Strauss-Kahn said, looking around to see which topic elicited the biggest response. He repeated one, echoing Mitterrand. "Yes, I love women. Et, alors?!" But he forgot one thing. He was not President yet.