Sarkozy vs. Strauss-Kahn: Sex as a Weapon?

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Philipe Wojazer / AFP / Getty

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks to IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the opening of a G-20 meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Feb. 18, 2011

Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique Stauss-Kahn were never friends — one conservative, the other Socialist, their political ambitions setting them on a collision course. Yet soon after Sarkozy's 2007 election as President of France, he surprised people by nominating Strauss-Kahn to be managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a heartening reach across party lines. Others, however, saw a more devious motive: Sarkozy was moving his most potent challenger to the IMF's headquarters, in Washington, depriving the freshly defeated Socialist Party of his charisma and leadership. The past four years, according to political observers in France, have been full of similar subtle and not-so-subtle maneuvers as both men prepared for what had been prophesied as a fierce battle for the French presidency in 2012.

Sarkozy has taken the requisite "innocent until proven guilty" position about Strauss-Kahn and his catastrophic legal situation in the U.S. But few observers believe the French President is grieving. Sarkozy knew he had been lucky back in 2007 not to have faced the popular Strauss-Kahn at the polls (instead, the Socialists fielded the attractive but disorganized Ségolène Royal). During a 2006 lunch discussion, a Sarkozy adviser told TIME how relieved he and his boss were that Strauss-Kahn was not running. "Of course," said the adviser with a smile, "if he did run, he'd probably ruin his own chances by getting caught in some woman's bed."

Indeed, certain analysts argue that the French President may have been betting on rather cynical odds: that by sending a notorious libertine to the puritanical mecca of America in the first place — and to the politically correct strictures of the rigid IMF in particular — Sarkozy was simply giving Strauss-Kahn enough rope to hang himself with. That may explain why it was that on May 16, the daily Le Figaro quoted Sarkozy responding to the news out of New York City with a reminder that he'd alerted Strauss-Kahn of the risks of being a seducteur: "I warned him about this!"

Sarkozy wasn't the only one. Shortly after Strauss-Kahn won the IMF job, Jean Quatremer — a journalist for the left-leaning Libération, wrote in an otherwise glowing profile of Strauss-Kahn that "the only real problem for Strauss-Kahn is his relation to women. Too forward. He often borders on harassment. It is a problem known to the media but that nobody talks about (we are in France). And the IMF is an international organization with Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. One out-of-line move and ..."

Already sensitive to the issue, Strauss-Kahn's staff were not happy with the comment. This week Quatremer recalled that "a few hours after the publication of this piece, I received a call from Ramzi Khiroun, one of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's communication people: 'We know you like DSK [as he is known in France] and we don't understand at all why you published this piece.' The tone was friendly — he spoke to me with the informal 'tu' although we'd never met — not angry, just saddened. How could I have done such an underhanded thing to his mentor? ... I knew that I was breaking a taboo. And Ramzi Khiroun even dared to ask me to erase the piece from my blog 'so as not to harm Dominique.' Such a scene is unimaginable in a modern democracy."

As it turned out, Quatremer (and Sarkozy) were prescient. In 2008, Strauss-Kahn was forced to admit he'd engaged in a sexual affair with Hungarian economist Piroska Nagy — a subordinate at the IMF. It was not quite the fatal misstep: Strauss-Kahn, though reprimanded, kept his job. Nagy eventually lost hers as part of a cost-cutting measure.

But that career crisis focused Strauss-Kahn and his staff on the fact that his sexual behavior could be used as a weapon against him when he eventually returned to French politics. A team of political advisers and communications experts was dispatched to Washington to help him spin the Nagy scandal and limit the p.r. damage. As part of that, according to D.S.K.: The Secrets of a Presidential Contender, a 2010 book about Strauss-Kahn, his minders told their boss to "stick to business" and forget his "hormone count." A seemingly contrite Strauss-Kahn appeared to do just that, not only dedicating himself to his increasingly urgent (and much applauded) IMF response to successive economic crises around the world, but also working with French media to restore his image as a dedicated husband.

French conservative officials loyal to Sarkozy watched in horror as Strauss-Kahn's already high approval numbers resumed their ascent. A poll in late 2009 found that Strauss-Kahn was the leading figure the French public said it wanted to see play a larger role in the future. Meanwhile, Sarkozy's ratings continued to decline, setting record lows for the postwar French presidency. Sarkozy allies decided to escalate the sex war, voicing overt warnings in the press that they'd go public with proof of Strauss-Kahn's lamentable private behavior if he chose to run for President — referring to long rumored incriminating photos of Strauss-Kahn caught in flagrante delicto. A book that came out around the time quoted a Sarkozy intimate and the ruling party's spokesman noting that if Strauss-Kahn ever ran for President, "he wouldn't last a week. We have the photos — they exist! We'll pass them around, and the French people wouldn't like that." Strauss-Kahn responded by threatening a libel suit; the party spokesman denied ever having made the statement.

The rumored photos have been bandied about as a potential weapon for years. One political analyst said 18 months ago that he wagered Strauss-Kahn would never run for President because "in addition to all the stories of his sexual activity, there are photographs. They're real. And no politician would ever survive what's in them if they ever went public." An adviser to a current government minister told TIME that while he'd never seen the photographs, he had it on solid grounds that they not only existed but could even lead to criminal charges.

The goading rumors clearly got under Strauss-Kahn's skin. As first reported by the weekly Le Point, at the G-20 meeting in September 2009 in Pittsburgh, he cornered the President while both men stood before neighboring urinals, warning Sarkozy, "I've had more than enough of the repeated rumors about my private life and the supposed files and photos that could come out to undermine me. I know it's all coming from the Elysée. So tell your boys to stop, or I'll take legal action." Sarkozy reportedly denied having any hand in the campaign.

The pictures, if they ever existed, have never materialized. But Strauss-Kahn was obsessed with their being used as a threat. At the end of April, at an informal meeting with editors of the left-leaning daily Libération, he railed that "for years people have said there are photos of giant orgies, but I've never seen any of them turn up ... Why don't they produce them, then?"

If the charges against him prove to be true, Strauss-Kahn's enemies no longer need to produce any kind of photographs.

With reporting by Jeffrey T. Iverson / Paris