Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), the former Head of the International Monetary Fund, and, until May this year, French Socialist Party frontrunner for the presidential nomination, was interviewed on primetime French television (TF1, 8p.m. News) on 18 September, 2011. It was the first time he had given his side of the story since May 2011, after his arrest on suspicion of the attempted rape and violent sexual assault of a chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo, in a hotel room in New York. By September, many commentators were beginning to say that too much time was being spent on this story. And yet over 13 million people watched the 8 o’clock news on 18 September.
In fact, France has been talking about this and related issues absolutely non-stop since May: about Strauss-Kahn, about the US, about France, about the two judicial systems, about the huge cultural differences, about punitive justice, voyeuristic and sexually obsessed/repressed Protestant America versus a more libertine France, about whether the US’ thinking that the French were a bunch of low life reprobates might have some truth in it, about gender relations, about the male psyche; psychoanalytic interpretations were everywhere – the most bizarre, that this forced sexual act was because, unconsciously, DSK didn’t want to become President (that really it was his wife who wanted him to be President…), and this was a way of ‘auto-destructing’ his career. One can think of less cataclysmic ways of changing careers. For the interview, the charming Claire Chazal (the French Fiona Bruce), a friend of Anne Sinclair, DSK’s wife, took useless questioning to new heights of blandness (and in France’s anodyne interviewing tradition, that’s saying something); although Chazal’s elegance lent a certain female/feminine atmosphere to this unpleasant discussion of sexual assault – something DSK always denied. If it had been a man, for example, Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, the tone would have been even less bearable. So, from the long-awaited interview, what was DSK’s side of the story? Well, we still don’t know what happened. He had by him and waved several times, the report by Cyrus Vance, the prosecuting judge, as if it was a text exonerating him. It didn’t. It simply said there was not enough evidence to proceed. Understandably for DSK – one wrong word, one misunderstood phrase, the slightest expression of arrogance or anger, and he would have been very vulnerable, for this interview was all about DSK’s image. The whole interview and its choice of words had been, clearly, very thoroughly rehearsed. And with that proviso, it was an effective piece of theatre; one also took from the performance that he would have made a formidable presidential candidate. He gave the very strong impression that he believed he did nothing criminal. Though he did do something wrong. And the interview took the form of the very un-French line of the ‘confessional’. He had committed a ‘faute morale’, he said more than once. We are still not sure what the ‘faute’ actually was, but assume it was having sudden and spontaneous oral sex with a complete stranger. He said he was now aware of the people he had hurt, what he had lost – a ‘lightness’ – an innocence?? – he would never feel again, what he had learned, etc.. This was pure Oprah, pure Bill Clinton. Although one has to say that the issues involved here differ significantly from Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. Even if DSK is innocent of any crime, when one compares the two cases – although one would never have imagined saying so at the time – Bill Clinton’s Oval Office liaison with Monica Lewinsky between 1995 and 1997 seems positively romantic compared to the DSK affair. This rather cringe-making American-style confessional was probably necessary to DSK’s re-entry into French life, and without a doubt was imposed by the demands of the French media and public. So, DSK’s ‘faute morale’ perhaps enabled him to slide away from the idea of violence to that of a momentary act of moral weakness, of (typical) male stupidity. From a crime to a sin. For which he sought – From his wife? From his family? From the French? Absolution. In fact, with the Vance text as a prop, DSK seemed to be absolving DSK. He even implied, with his supportive interlocutor’s help (‘Vous n’accusez pas?’) that it might all have been a plot to entrap him. By whom? One thinks of Diallo and her friends, or perhaps the US authorities (and was the hotel management involved?), or perhaps the French authorities even… ‘We shall see’, said DSK. So perhaps we shall, though perhaps should not hold our breath. For DSK, however, there are more allegations to come of other assaults (from Tristane Banon, for example). In the context of the possible ‘sting’ operation alluded to, what was not developed in the discussion was the idea that DSK’s long established reputation as, at best, a libertine made him perhaps an ideal target. Well, if it was a plot, it worked. The career of one of the most influential men in the world, and the likely next President of the French Republic is in ruins, because of a moment of folly in a hotel room. He could have faced decades in a US prison. But from his interview with Chazal, you would have been forgiven if you forgot this. Somewhat indecently for such a moment of contrition, the interview moved on to the problems of the Greek bailout and the European and world economy, and suddenly it was like a different interview with a different man. It is true that DSK’s presidential hopes have been shattered by what happened in New York, but the way in which he glided from personal contrition to world affairs suggests this is not the end of his career at all. We may be looking at not the next President, but perhaps at the next Prime Minister.