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05.15.11

Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Arrest and Political Fallout

Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York on Saturday for alleged criminal sexual assault may end his career at the IMF—and will transform the French presidential race.

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn will be arraigned Monday in a Manhattan court, after spending Sunday afternoon undergoing a forensic investigation at the NYPD Special Victims Unit in Harlem. Meanwhile, the arrest has thrown French politics into chaos, and the IMF selected former U.S. Treasury executive John Lipsky to serve as its acting director.

Christopher Dickey reports on the reaction in Paris, and how the arrest transformed the French presidential race overnight.

Everyone who knows Dominique Strauss-Kahn realized a long time ago that his relations with women could be problematic for him in Washington, where he has been serving as head of the International Monetary Fund. “They look at these things differently in America,” one of his closest friends remembers telling him before he took the job. But nobody thought that in France a history of skirt chasing could stop Strauss-Kahn from defeating deeply unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s elections. After all, the personal lives of many French politicians resemble a sexual version of musical chairs, and the public rarely blinks.

But Strauss-Kahn’s future, and France’s, changed dramatically when police in New York pulled him off a Paris-bound flight Saturday afternoon shortly before takeoff. The NYPD formally arrested him early this morning on sexual assault charges pressed by a maid at the French-run Sofitel hotel in Manhattan. (His lawyer reportedly says he will plead not guilty.) “It looks like his career at the IMF and his candidacy are, as you say, toast,” laments another close friend of Strauss-Kahn. And President Sarkozy being Sarkozy, with a reputation for ruthlessness that knows few bounds, conspiracy theories are certain to proliferate. Already on French television this morning, commentators are wondering if Strauss-Kahn was set up.

One area of interest: since his days as France’s interior minister responsible for the police between 2002 and 2007, Sarkozy has forged close ties with American law enforcement. This morning NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne moved quickly to stamp out any speculation that those links could be relevant. The New York City Police detectives who arrested Strauss-Kahn “had no clue of any such relationship,” Browne told me just now in an email. The simple truth, says Browne, is that at 2:15 a.m. New York time, after he had been in custody for about nine hours, they arrested Strauss-Kahn “on charges of a criminal sexual act, attempted rape, and an unlawful imprisonment based on the credible complaint by a 32-year chamber maid who had been sexually assaulted in the luxury suite of a midtown Manhattan hotel yesterday, at approximately 1:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”

A French law enforcement source, who asked me not to identify him more closely than that, says several aspects of the case as presented so far seem to have been sensationalized in the American press. Strauss-Kahn supposedly emerged naked from the shower in his suite when the maid came in to clean, allegedly forced her to perform fellatio on him, then allegedly tried to lock her away in the room so he could rush for the airport, leaving his cell phone and some other personal items behind.

Although not a friend of Strauss-Kahn, the French law enforcement source knows his background and private life well, and suggests that while Strauss-Kahn may “have an issue with his penis, he never forces anybody. He is much more romantic than that. So this whole aspect needs to be given a lot of attention.” According to this source, Strauss-Kahn had an early lunch with his daughter in New York, had called his wife, and was on a normal schedule to board the Air France flight, which had been booked long in advance. Strauss-Kahn normally carries “several” cell phones, according to this source, so leaving one behind in the room is not quite as incriminating as it may sound.

A French law enforcement source says several aspects of the case as presented in the press so far seem to have been sensationalized in the American press.

As for the notion that Sarkozy might be behind some nefarious plot, one of his advisers says privately that’s not only untrue as a matter of fact, but would be unlikely as a matter of strategy: “This is far too early for him to take out a main opponent.”

But whatever the outcome of hearings and a possible trial, the entire process is now likely to drag on for months if not years. It took American basketball star Kobe Bryant more than a year to get the charges against him dropped when a hotel employee in Colorado made a similar accusation against him in 2003. And Strauss-Kahn doesn’t have that kind of time. Presidential elections are scheduled for next April and May, and Strauss-Kahn was expected to declare his candidacy in June. Now he may not even be able to return to France this summer unless the allegations against him are sorted out.

The impact of the incident on French politics is hard to overstate. Strauss-Kahn has long been one of the leading figures in the French Socialist Party, and when he accepted the IMF job in 2007, with support from the newly elected Sarkozy, many considered the move a Machiavellian masterstroke by the president that would get Strauss-Kahn out of the way. But rough economic times and the French public’s growing dislike of the diminutive Sarkozy’s tough-guy personality (sometimes likened to the actor Joe Pesci in his gangster roles) has pushed the president’s approval ratings south of 30 percent. At the same time, the world financial crisis put the IMF and its head at center stage in global affairs.

Last year, with an eye to his re-election, Sarkozy abandoned his efforts to co-opt the left and center and moved to consolidate support on the far right – only to see his popularity there preempted by Marine Le Pen when she took over as head of the National Front party founded by her father and began to soften its extremist image. In recent months, polls have suggested Strauss-Kahn and Le Pen would both be able to beat Sarkozy in the first round of elections, and Strauss-Kahn would then win the top job.

But, as I reported in Newsweek last October, those close to Strauss-Kahn have long worried that he would somehow defeat himself. And while lovers and mistresses are common among French politicians – the late President François Mitterrand had a whole second family – Strauss-Kahn still pushed the limits of propriety.

Despite warnings from his advisers, a few months after Strauss-Kahn went to the IMF he got involved with a Hungarian employee of the fund. He was cleared of misconduct but reprimanded by the IMF board for a serious error of judgment. Strauss-Kahn’s wife, Anne Sinclair, a widely respected journalist and television personality in France, said she supported him “turning the page” on “a one-night stand.” And the whole incident did nothing to hurt Strauss-Kahn in the polls.

Critics of Strauss-Kahn were able to get a little more traction recently with the publication of photographs showing him being driven away from his apartment on the chic Place des Vosges in a four-door Porsche. The elite of the Socialist Party generally, and Strauss-Kahn particularly, is often called “la gauche caviar,” the caviar left, for opulent life-styles. And the press had a field day with Strauss-Kahn’s apparent choice of wheels. But as Le Monde reports this morning, even for such a minor thing as that, “the Strauss-Kahnians see in this press campaign the hand of President Sarkozy.”

One thing’s for sure: The ugly allegations in New York are going to make French politics a whole lot nastier in the months to come.

Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek Magazine and The Daily Beast. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance, and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.