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07.25.11

Maid’s Tale Ignites France

The French were jolted out of their summer doldrums when Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser went public in a Newsweek cover story. Tracy McNicoll polls the response from Paris—and finds that public opinion is as divided as ever.

France normally slumbers in its usual empty late-July news hole, but the ongoing Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair is not apt to let that happen this summer.

Newsweek’s exclusive interview with Nafissatou Diallo, the maid who accused the former IMF chief of attempted rape at New York’s Sofitel hotel on May 14, is a top headline here. And French readers aren’t waiting for holidaying talking heads to tell them what to think. They are discussing the maid’s tale en masse, with the story quickly becoming the most talked-about item on websites for French dailies like Le Monde and Libération.

The story broke late Sunday night in France, but the dailies Le Figaro and Le Parisien managed to find space on their front pages for an image of Newsweek’s cover, which includes the world’s first look at the woman at the heart of the scandal that rocked French society—and the nation’s 2012 presidential election, too.

The interview is seen in France, along with another that Diallo gave to ABC News due to air in part on Monday, as a “media offensive” on the maid’s part. That’s especially so given that it comes exactly a week before the next hearing in the case, on Aug. 1 in New York. Some see the interview as a definitive sign of weakness in Diallo’s case, which seemed suddenly crippled July 1, when new allegations surfaced about her past. (Similarly, the lawyer for Tristane Banon, a French woman who has accused Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape, was invited to meet with Diallo’s team in New York last week, and some observers wondered whether the fact that each case appeared to need the other indicated that both were prohibitively weak.)

BFM TV analyst Thierry Arnaud sees the maid’s breaking her silence as an effort to get the public involved and thereby “exercise the strongest possible pressure” on the district attorney’s office not to drop the charges at next week’s hearing. Another analyst, Christopher Mesnooh, a lawyer admitted to the bars of both Paris and New York and a frequent commentator on this case, told the French 24-hour news channel i-Télé, “It can only play in Ms. Diallo’s favor.”

French press reports add remarks from an angry rebuttal released by Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers. Meanwhile, Banon’s lawyer, David Koubbi, told the French radio station Europe 1 that he met with Diallo in New York last week and was “troubled” by her account, which he says was “in the same vein” as the one she has now gone public with, although he claims he heard yet more detail.

While some of the French Internet vox populi sympathizes with Diallo, her decision to speak up now does not appear to be swinging public opinion, skeptical from the start in France, in her favor.

Coverage of the maid’s account in Libération, the left-leaning daily (favored by many supporters of Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist Party), had more than 1,000 comments on its website at this writing, with a broad mix ranging from thoughtful to tasteless and from those who believe her to those who don’t. Some who have left comments, like Frankoys, wonder whether she took money for her account. “Of course she scored a jackpot just for this,” writes Frankoys. “It’s logical enough: This whole affair is happening only because she wants to make maximum easy cash. Might as well start now (especially if it goes badly for her on Aug. 1).” (To be clear, Newsweek does not pay for interviews.)

Her decision to speak up now does not appear to be swinging public opinion, skeptical from the start in France, in her favor.

Although the French media have reported the accuser’s name from the start, unlike American outlets, this is for the French and the rest of the world the first image they have seen of Nafissatou Diallo’s face. Some comment liberally—and crassly—on it. PtitPrince974 says of Diallo’s photo, “Newsweek says ‘she is not glamorous’—that’s the least you could say. DSK is really dying of hunger ... What a crazy libido this guy has!” Another commenter named Julot writes, “Did you see the chick? She’s a tire, a truck tire at that. I’d rather do it with my washing machine. He is definitely above ALL suspicion.” Other readers respond angrily to those comments. Pistouille, for one, promptly slams Julot: “Ah la la, well, there’s the killer argument. Do you know anything about assault? I don’t know if this person was actually raped or not, but I know that physique has absolutely nothing to do with stories of rape! Indeed, I’m sure all women who are ugly in your eyes and have been raped thank you for your insight.”

One Le Monde commenter, Pro Banon, is convinced by the maid. “Everything appears credible,” Pro Banon writes, while noting that the defense has tried to discredit Diallo. “But until proven otherwise, she does seem to be a victim of rape, an unforgivable crime that affects a woman for life. We wish her courage, she and Madame Banon ...”

Video screenshot

On Le Monde.fr, one commenter, Joelle Koenig, seems relieved. “When I think we wanted him to be our president. We really dodged a bullet, in any case,” she writes. To which another, Atchoum, reponds sarcastically, “My compliments, madame. With you, no need to wait for the conclusion of the trial.”

Bilingual readers point out that the Newsweek story is more nuanced than is being reported in French. One Le Monde commenter, Guy C, notes that Christopher Dickey and John Solomon write in Newsweek of their impression that the maid’s tears sometimes seemed forced. “Which changes everything with regard to the sincerity of Diallo’s declarations. All of the French press is reporting the Newsweek article without that excerpt.”

Not all of the French press leaves out the Newsweek reporters’ question marks, however. The weekly magazine L’Express’s analysis, “DSK Affair: Newsweek Is Walking on Eggshells,” argues that the Newsweek writers “take every precaution to nuance the maid’s account,” pointing out what seemed at times like forced tears and Diallo’s vague answers on her West African past. In response to a story in Le Figaro, one commenter on its website notes, “If even the journalists admit that the tears seem forced (never heard that before!), it’s clearly because this woman is alternating lies, manipulation, and perhaps truth ... Enough of this phony dossier that smells of lies. There are enough serious dossiers with real victims.”

Everyone is an expert. Proof at least, were it needed, that through an unusually newsy summer for France, the armchair, café-table, beach-towel argument over who the real victim is isn’t over yet.