DSK’s Awkward Homecoming

Prosecutors drop rape charges, but Strauss-Kahn’s political future in France is dim.

08.23.11 10:33 PM ET

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a free man. Now what?

Exactly 100 days after the perp walk seen round the world, a New York court has dropped all charges against the Frenchman for the alleged attempted rape of a hotel maid on May 14. That single shocking image rocked French political life and extinguished Strauss-Kahn's blindingly bright political future; as then–managing director of the International Monetary Fund, he was a frontrunner to become president of France in 2012. But while the charges that brought him down have been thrown out, Strauss-Kahn shouldn't expect a return to the pre-scandal status quo when he touches down in Paris, probably next week. Strauss-Kahn may have seen the last of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. But “l’affaire du Sofitel” has shattered illusions, awakened enemies, and stirred ambitions in friends who filled the political gap left by Strauss-Kahn's arrest. And in the court of public opinion, the jury is still out.

Once the criminal charges in New York looked doomed, DSK's political friends hit the airwaves. Martine Aubry, a key Socialist figure running for the party's presidential nomination, told French radio of her “joy” and “immense relief” that Strauss-Kahn could “finally get out of this nightmare.” Another candidate for the primary, Manuel Valls, called the ordeal “an immense waste.” Even some of Strauss-Kahn's political opponents were magnanimous. The head of the ruling UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy's party, claimed he was “happy.” And Sarkozy's defense minister, Gérard Longuet, had flowing praise: “So much skill, culture, savoir-faire, seduction—[he] deserved more than this very difficult affair. I am delighted for him and his wife.”

But the kind words go only so far. When the accusations broke in May, the scenario of a prodigal Strauss-Kahn returning all the stronger, the victim of a travesty of justice (or even an international conspiracy), was plausible. But these days no one is suggesting that Strauss-Kahn run for France's top job.

As the familiar circus gathered for one last Strauss-Kahn criminal-court hearing in New York, one of Nafissatou Diallo's lawyers, Douglas Wigdor, was giving a standing-room-only press conference in a Paris hotel. Near the Arc de Triomphe, Wigdor and his French counterpart, Thibault de Montbrial, laid out the plaintiff's plea for a special prosecutor to replace Vance in the floundering criminal case. The local and foreign reporters (mostly women, as it happens) occasionally laughed at the lawyers' wry quips about Strauss-Kahn's legendary promiscuity. Wigdor and Montbrial let on just enough about the civil case against Strauss-Kahn to tease interest: they plan to “aggressively litigate” in the Bronx, and it will take “at least a year and a half to two years to get to a trial.” The lawyers said “many” women “around the world” have responded to their plea to step forward about Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual misconduct. And as he described the “damage to Madame Diallo's vagina,” Montbrial apologized for “being specific.” But it was a reminder that in the coming months or years, Strauss-Kahn's legal adversaries are free at any time to get graphically specific. And that sort of specificity, for a politician rebuilding his image, will never be opportune.

In Paris, Diallo's counsel had earlier met with David Koubbi, the lawyer “aggressively prosecuting” the case of Tristane Banon, the young French writer with an attempted-rape complaint against Strauss-Kahn, and with whom Wigdor pledges they “will work together to ensure that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is held accountable for his conduct towards women.” Elsewhere, Tristane Banon's mother, Anne Mansouret, an elected Socialist, told Agence France-Presse, “I am outraged, morning, noon, and night. What disgusts me is really the reaction of the elected Socialists. They are all repeating that Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes out of this cleared. No, he hasn't been cleared.”

Le Monde, meanwhile, reminded its readers of same in a front-page editorial, warning against equating the dropped charges with proof of innocence. And Le Monde sees in the ordeal a “ruthless lesson” for Strauss-Kahn. “The affair forced him to prematurely quit, and in infamous circumstances, his post of managing director of the IMF. It definitively compromised his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election. It lifted the veil on aspects of his personality, his relationships with women and with money. Like most French politicians, he thought he was protected by our solid tradition of respect for private life.” The global media maelstrom played a part, Le Monde says. “But the essence, at the end of the day, hangs on Mr. Strauss-Kahn himself. Like Bill Clinton, whose presidency was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky affair, he is above all a victim of his own imprudence.”

Over the past 100 days, Strauss-Kahn's longtime Socialist cronies have put their weight behind other candidates, and those candidates have spent their summer touring the country or publishing campaign books. Three days before the Socialist Party's annual end-of-summer convention (where all will try, in vain, not to talk about DSK), no one is suggesting Strauss-Kahn get a late pass to join the party's primary race ahead of October voting. After hundreds of thousands of cover stories around the world detailed his travails with anatomic precision, his partymates are suggesting that, anyway, he will need some time to himself. At best, his comrades are suggesting en masse, as a new global recession threatens, Strauss-Kahn's unquestioned talents as a brilliant economist will be welcome, “when the time comes.” When exactly that time will come, and what Strauss-Kahn's role will be (eminence grise or something more visible?), depends on what French voters retain of the end of the criminal case in New York. That Strauss-Kahn was innocent? That his guilt simply couldn't be proved? Or that a millionaire white man memorably dubbed “Le Perv” got off easy against a poor African immigrant?

The popular daily Le Parisien suggests that, at this point, even Strauss-Kahn's endorsement could be toxic. He would likely back Martine Aubry, but Le Parisien asks, “Is it in her interest that he express that? Because for the moment, nobody knows what trace l’affaire du Sofitel will leave on public opinion. In the face of these uncertainties, the Socialists would therefore prefer that DSK avoid getting involved in the primaries.”

Polls over the summer gave the impression that Strauss-Kahn's services, at least for France's top jobs, were no longer wanted, or even required. Back in January, a poll had him crushing Sarkozy for the presidency, 64 percent to 36 percent. By July, 62 percent did not want Strauss-Kahn to run for the Socialist nomination, even if charges were dropped. Another poll showed 63 percent didn't want him to be selected as prime minister, either. Gradually, other Socialists, Aubry and François Hollande, began to equal or overtake Sarkozy for the presidency in polls, as if to swat away the illusion that Strauss-Kahn was the left wing's only hope. In an Ipsos poll taken Aug. 19 and 20 and due out Thursday, Strauss-Kahn's popularity rating (28 percent) is emphatically outdistanced by those of Hollande (54 percent) and Aubry (47 percent). Indeed, in that poll, he is only three points ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

From messiah to pariah in 100 days: with time, Strauss-Kahn's political image will surely settle somewhere in the middle. For some, a Socialist—any Socialist—winning the presidency next spring would go a long way toward mending DSK's legacy, downgrading nine minutes in a New York hotel room from historical catastrophe to mere dumb move. Others, meanwhile, are tasked with making sure it costs him much more than that. What is clear is that this real-life political thriller hasn't seen its last twist.