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05.17.11

Three Women to Decide IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Sexual-Assault Case

The rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn hinges on the testimony of three women: his daughter, the hotel maid he allegedly attacked, and a second alleged victim. Christopher Dickey reports from Paris.

Plus: Strauss-Kahn's life at Rikers, Bernard-Henri Lévy on why Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, and Andrew Sullivan on the false moral certainty of defending the IMF chief.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn—the fallen rock star of the global economy, the forsaken frontrunner for the French presidency, and the accused sexual predator who allegedly attacked a housekeeper in a New York hotel last Saturday— looked desperately tired and old in court yesterday. The sexagenarian politician long known in French headlines as “the Great Seducer,” listened as a woman judge primly, and perhaps a little triumphantly, declared him a flight risk and refused him bail.

But as Strauss-Kahn sits in his cell on Riker’s Island he should be thinking long and hard about three much younger women whose testimony now, and in the months to come, could well decide his future.

One is the alleged victim, a 33-year-old African immigrant and single mother who is a maid at the Sofitel Hotel. Strauss-Kahn is supposed to have leapt at her when he was just stepping out of the shower and she was just stepping into his room.

Another is a young French journalist and author, Tristane Banon, who claimed she had to fight off Strauss-Kahn’s unwanted advances in a ferocious battle on the floor of an empty apartment nine years ago when she was 22.

The third woman is the youngest daughter of the accused, Camille Strauss-Kahn, who has been studying at Columbia University. Her lunch with her father on Saturday after the alleged attempted rape of the hotel maid does not, as some French media have reported, give him an alibi. But it does seem to fit a scenario quite different from the panicked scramble to the airport detailed in early press reports.

The hotel maid’s presumed name is now well known outside the American press, which does not normally publish the full identities of victims of sexual crimes. The Sofitel management says she has worked there for three years and been an exemplary employee. French publications report that since last winter she has lived in a run-down little apartment in the Bronx with a 16-year-old daughter. Neighbors there have told both French and American journalists that she is quiet but friendly. Some accounts say she is Muslim and normally wears a headscarf. And the Parisian press, undaunted by a U.S. sense of propriety, has tried hard to figure out how attractive she may or may not be.

“Physically, accounts differ,” writes the website of Paris Match. “The lawyers for DSK [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] apparently declared they were surprised to discover her face was ‘not very seductive,’ ” when they saw her at the lineup where she formally identified the head of the International Monetary Fund as her attacker. But the French tabloid France-Soir interviewed a limo driver who works with the hotel, saying the housekeeper “was a very pretty woman in her thirties, with big breasts and a beautiful rear.”

At least one investigator looking into the case in the interest of Strauss-Kahn’s defense is pursuing the theory that he may have had a previous relationship with the housekeeper on other visits to the Sofitel, and may have had a fight with her after he decided it was over. But there is nothing in any of the legal documents filed thus far that suggests that’s the case.

In the court of public opinion, meanwhile, brief references to the reported 2002 trauma of Tristane Banon at Strauss-Kahn’s hands have been damning. But what’s actually known of that incident, and of the relationships behind it, suggests a very complicated narrative before and after the alleged attack.

At the time, Banon was a fledgling 22-year-old freelance reporter and would-be novelist whose mother had moved from public relations into politics as a member of Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist Party. Banon’s father and mother were divorced the year she was born, and in Banon’s admittedly autobiographical first novel the father “disappeared between the city hall and the hospital.” It’s perhaps intriguing that the title of her most recent book, another novel, translates as Frenzied Daddy.

But the nonfiction encounter with Strauss-Kahn, a man more than twice Banon’s age, allegedly came when she was trying to make her mark with a book called Admitted Mistakes. Her idea was to get famous people to say what they’d done wrong in the past. As the publicity for the book on her website puts it, “She’s got some damned nerve, Tristane Banon… Falsely naïve, she questions, she titillates, she disarms them and they talk.”

He unclasped her bra in front; tried to pull down her jeans. She kicked him, she accused him of trying to rape her; he let her go.

Strauss-Kahn was a big name. He’d been the powerful minister of the economy in the 1990s. He was a leading figure in the Socialist Party—maybe president some day. And Banon already had an in. Her godmother was Strauss-Kahn’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette, and Banon and Strauss-Kahn’s daughter Camille were childhood friends. As Banon would tell the story later, although not in the pages of her book, Strauss-Kahn was not happy with the first interview he gave her and sent her a text message asking her to meet him at an apartment. When she got there, they were alone and the place was almost empty except for a bed, a TV, and a video recorder.

Banon gave her now widely quoted account of near rape by Strauss-Kahn when she appeared on a talk show called 93, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 2007. Although Strauss-Kahn’s name was bleeped out at the time it aired, everyone in the know in Paris understood whom she was talking about. Indeed, according to one well-connected hostess, Banon was being invited to dinner parties around that time just so people could hear the story.

The format for the television show was discussion around a candlelit table, with liberal servings of red wine and a semblance of sophisticated, cynical, very Parisian repartee. “It went very badly with [bleep],” says Banon, half laughing as she compares him to a “rutting chimpanzee.” Her host chimes in that [bleep] is “obsessed with chicks. No, it’s true, he’s obsessed with chicks.” Then Banon goes on to say Strauss-Kahn put his hand on her hand, then her arm. Then they started grappling on the floor as she tried to fend him off. He unclasped her bra in front; tried to pull down her jeans. She kicked him, she accused him of trying to rape her; he let her go. The other guests seemed at least as amused as they were appalled listening to Banon’s story.

Since Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York, Banon has not been speaking to the press, but her mother has. Anne Mansouret says now that she regrets telling her daughter not to file charges against him in 2002. Mansouret also told French media that Strauss-Kahn eventually expressed some regret for the incident. Banon’s lawyer says Banon is now preparing to file a complaint.

How Banon’s childhood friend Camille feels about that story is not known. Although she reportedly has attended her father’s hearings, very little attention has been focused on her. That will change. In the chronology of events surrounding the alleged attack in the Sofitel, Strauss-Kahn’s defenders portray him having a calm lunch with Camille after the supposed rape attempt and struggle, then going to catch his plane, realizing he had left one of his phones in the hotel suite—and calling the hotel to see if someone can bring it to him at the airport. Instead, the police came for him. “This is not really the behavior of a man who has just tried to rape someone,” says a source close to the defense.

If Camille is put on the stand, she will have to say under oath whether her father looked, at that moment, more like a future president or a fugitive.

Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for NEWSWEEK 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.