07.01.11

France Reacts to Strauss-Kahn Shocker

Paris was shaken awake Friday by the stunning news that the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, previously believed to be overwhelming, has been exploded by the chambermaid’s lies about her past. Tracy McNicoll reports on the French media frenzy—and the talk of a political comeback.

The French capital awoke this morning to the shocking possibility of an extraordinary reversal of fortune in the case of disgraced International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The once—and maybe future?—frontrunner for the 2012 French presidential election had looked down for the count, languishing under house arrest awaiting trial for the alleged attempted rape of a Guinean chambermaid in New York’s Sofitel Hotel on May 14. But those charges are suddenly on the brink of collapse. “Enorme coup de théâtre!” “Spectaculaire retournement de situation!” The superlatives in the French media this morning hardly require translation.

France’s 24-hour news stations had pulled their top experts out of bed for special editions in-studio before dawn. Just 24 hours after France was captivated by the return of hostages from Afghanistan, some are hoping that a hero’s welcome for Strauss-Kahn is imminent. But in the earliest hours of Friday morning, analysts were cautious, noting the credibility of Strauss-Kahn’s accuser has clearly been shaken, but that the charges against him still stand. Analysts also point out the DNA evidence illustrating that there were sexual relations between accused and accuser in the Sofitel suite on May 14, whether or not they were criminal.

The word that Strauss-Kahn may, within hours, escape his New York City house arrest—if not the charges against him or the obligation to remain in the United States—is a tremor to the core of French political life, comparable only to news in the early hours of May 15 of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. Strauss-Kahn’s surprising fate has structured French politics over the past seven weeks. The new breakthrough comes just four days after French finance minister Christine Lagarde was named managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the post Strauss-Kahn had to give up on May 19.

President Nicolas Sarkozy shuffled his cabinet Wednesday to replace Lagarde. He also had to replace Georges Tron, a junior minister swiftly forced from cabinet after female employees made assault allegations against him a month ago, days after Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. Tron’s quick dispatch from the government after forced-sex accusations was attributed by some to a “DSK effect.” And Tron, who has since been charged with rape, argues there is a conspiracy against him, with detractors trying to “echo” the Strauss-Kahn affair.

Socialists appearing on early morning radio and television as the news broke seemed to be clicking their heels.

The plot thickens, meanwhile, for Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist Party. Party leader Martine Aubry, long thought to have had a pact with Strauss-Kahn not to run if he did, finally threw her hat in the ring on Tuesday, even as analysts questioned how motivated she really is for a tough campaign. This morning, a smiling Aubry told a horde of assembled press that “the news that came to us overnight from the American press gives me and all of those close to Dominique immense joy.” She said, “I hope that as soon as this evening, the American justice system will establish all of the truth and enable Dominique to get out of this nightmare.”

Aubry’s calendar for Strauss-Kahn might be optimistic, but it will escape no one’s notice that Socialist candidates still have two weeks, until a July 13 deadline, to declare their candidacies for the primary race. Whether Strauss-Kahn will be able, after all, to contemplate a run is the question on everyone’s lips. Socialist politician Michèle Sabban, a crony of Strauss-Kahn’s who was one of the first to declare after the incident that she was “convinced of an international conspiracy,” told French television early this morning that, if Strauss-Kahn is deemed innocent, he should be given a chance to run, even beyond the July 13 due date. “I will ask the declared candidates for the Socialist Party primary to let Dominique have the time to speak,” said Sabban. “With the global humiliation Dominique has endured, I think it is worth the trouble of waiting.”

News of trouble in the prosecution’s case against Strauss-Kahn comes as a shock in France, but one that will immediately fall on receptive ears across the country. In the days following the news of the attempted rape in New York and Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, 57 percent of French people polled suspected a plot. Only 32 percent didn’t.

For now, some of Strauss-Kahn’s friends aren’t above boasting. Strauss-Kahn’s longtime Socialist ally Claude Bartolone, a member of the French parliament, said on French radio this morning, “There is only one thing that makes me happy, apart from this hope reappearing in the life of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anne Sinclair and their family: it’s the look that must be on Sarkozy’s face today and the faces of all of the right-wingers who wanted with this story to eliminate the Socialist Party on a moral level.”

In fact, Socialists appearing on early morning radio and television as the news broke seemed to be clicking their heels. “It’s a great joy,” the Socialist Jean-Marie Le Guen told France Info radio. “All of those who dragged him through the mud... today maybe see things a bit differently.” Le Guen added, “All those who speculated on his political disappearance will soon have to deal with a person free in his movements, who will be able to look the French people in the eye and whose voice will be very important in the circumstances our country is in.”

But what Strauss-Kahn’s allies may be forgetting is the noise surrounding Strauss-Kahn’s case, quite apart from rape charges that in his best-case scenario could be dropped. Just days before the attempted rape incident blew apart the presidential race, Strauss-Kahn was under fire for a photo that showed him with a friend’s expensive Porsche. Will Socialist voters be able to overlook the $50,000-month TriBeCa townhouse he rented for his house arrest?

Strauss-Kahn’s legal troubles also brought his reputation for aggressive flirting to a much, much larger audience than the Paris elite already in the know. Every little old lady in rural France—or Minnesota or Japan for that matter—knows more than they might like about Strauss-Kahn’s sex life. France has a reputation for, and even takes some pride in, letting its politicians enjoy extra-conjugal affairs without judgment. But will Strauss-Kahn be given a pass this time?

Olivia Cattan, president of Paroles de Femmes, a French women’s rights organization, tells the Daily Beast that her group avoided focusing specifically on Strauss-Kahn precisely because it knows cases can fall apart as this one may. It was more important, she says, to explore what the case revealed about sexism in France . And on that score, Cattan says, there were positive signs in the seven weeks since Strauss-Kahn’s arrest.

“I think women were feeling more free to speak,” Cattan said. But media reactions today don’t bode well. Watching politicians and journalists trade reactions on TV this morning, “I got the impression that he could came back into the presidential race, “she says. “And it’s a bit curious because there were quite a few lips loosened [on Strauss-Kahn since his arrest], journalists who said they were strongly flirted with, etc.,” Cattan notes, “So people will say, it’s strong flirting, and in the end not so bad and doesn’t make him a rapist or someone aggressive. I think it will be forgotten. And France is perfectly capable of accepting his candidacy if he wanted to run.”

Audiences abroad, however—little old ladies and power players alike—may be less quick to forget.