DSK's Apology Tour

In his first interview since returning to France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn tells a French TV audience that what happened in a New York hotel room in May was a ‘moral error’ but admits nothing more.

09.18.11 11:44 PM ET

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s first interview since his May 14 arrest in New York lasted longer than his mysterious encounter with the hotel maid he was accused of attempting to rape at the Times Square Sofitel. But while France’s top evening newscast hoped to set an audience record with DSK’s first interview since he returned home to Paris a free man two weeks ago, viewers aren’t much closer to knowing what happened  during those elusive nine minutes four months ago in Room 2806.

In a dark suit and a dark blue tie over a white shirt, Strauss-Kahn wore a grave expression, his hands flat on the desk in front of him as he spent more than 12 minutes of the interview on his encounter with Nafissatou Diallo and the 100-day ordeal that followed, ending his International Monetary Fund career and his hopes for a 2012 presidential run. At his side on the studio’s desk, Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance’s August report asking that the criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn be dropped was a ready prop, Strauss-Kahn picking it up several times, even audibly poking it, to illustrate his innocence.

“What happened includes neither violence, nor coercion, nor aggression, nor any criminal act. It is the district attorney who says that, not me,” the one-time frontrunner to become France’s next president told Claire Chazal, the popular weekend anchor on the TF1 newscast.

The choice of Chazal, a friend of Strauss-Kahn’s wife, Anne Sinclair, and the TF1 channel, where Sinclair, a former television journalist, worked for many years, was controversial. Chazal did however spend more time questioning Strauss-Kahn on the so-called Sofitel Affair than may have been expected—an IFOP poll released today had provided an easy out, suggesting only 35 percent of the French public wanted Strauss-Kahn to explain what happened in Room 2806, while 64 percent were interested in hearing his expertise and solutions for the economic crisis, the former IMF chief’s last remaining asset in the eyes of the public, according to the pollster. Strauss-Kahn nevertheless handily set the rhythm of the interview, sometimes pausing at length, and never seemed troubled by the questions posed. (Chazal, not known for hard-hitting interviews, recently made the cover of the glossy weekly Paris Match, herself the celebrity interviewee, pictured frolicking on a beach.) “There wasn’t a trial because there was no longer a single accusation that held and the district attorney—it is his role—said that since there is no longer any accusation that holds, nor material proof, nor credible statement, then, one can only renounce,” Strauss-Kahn told Chazal.

“What happened [with Diallo at the Sofitel] was a relationship that was not only inappropriate, but more than that, an error. An error with regard to my wife, to my children, to my friends. But also an error with regard to the French people, who had placed in me their hope for change,” Strauss-Kahn said. “And from that point of view, it must be said, I missed my rendez-vous with the French people,” he said, admitting he would otherwise have declared his candidacy for the Socialist nomination for 2012.

Strauss-Kahn denied that his sexual encounter with the chambermaid was paid sex, but was not pressed on why the sexual encounter he claimed was consensual and non-violent, after which he says he did not attempt to flee, was so short. “I think it was a moral error. And I am not proud of it. And I regret it infinitely. I have regretted it all of these days over the past four months,” he said.

Strauss-Kahn played to the home crowd, twice using the phrase “us French.” “It’s a bit curious for us French that, when all the charges have disappeared on the penal side, one can nevertheless bring a civil case, but that is the case in the United States,” he said. “By the way, the existence of this civil case clearly shows the financial motivation that is behind all of this.”

Furthermore, DSK left open the suggestion that he may have been set up: “A trap, it’s possible. A conspiracy, we’ll see,” he told Chazal. He noted bitterly that the Sofitel provided more access to information on Diallo’s movements in the hotel that day to her own lawyers than to his.

Strauss-Kahn’s shot at a presidential run may in fact—at least among Socialist Party supporters in France—have been damaged as much by the allegations against him as by his strikingly easy access to millions of dollars in bail money and other fees. To Chazal, Strauss-Kahn, an economist by trade, deplored the role money plays in the court system in the United States and claimed that he didn’t, in any case, like the $50,000 a month TriBeCa townhouse he and his heiress wife rented, but they had no choice.

“First of all, the role of money, for us French, the role of money in the American justice system is very shocking. And in the face of the daily difficulties of life of French people, the sums in question were shocking, that’s for sure,” Strauss-Kahn said. “What was there to do? When you have a few hours to either find housing or you return to Rikers Island, you don’t hesitate if you are lucky enough to be able to not hesitate.”

DSK explained that the media attention made it impossible to rent an apartment, that few houses were available, and that his accommodations had to meet strict security conditions set by the judge. “So we found this house. I didn’t like this house. It was expensive. But it was that or return to Rikers Island,” he explained.

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When Chazal asked Strauss-Kahn to get personal about his ordeal, he sought sympathy. “What can I tell you? I was scared. I was very scared. When you are caught in those sorts of jaws, in that machine, you have the impression it can shred you. I had the sentiment that I had been trampled on, humiliated, before even being able to say a word. And in this affair, I experienced some violent things, yes,” Strauss-Kahn says. “Terrible attacks,” he went on, raising his voice as Chazal tried to ask another question. “And I lost a lot, even though others in other circumstances may sometimes have lost more than me.”

Strauss-Kahn paid tribute to his wife, although he suggested she wouldn’t have stood by her man if he had been guilty. “She is an exceptional woman. I would not have resisted, I would not have been able to resist through all of this without her,” DSK said of Sinclair, whom he married 20 years ago this November. “I am wildly lucky to have her at my side. I hurt her. I know it. I am angry at myself for it.” He went on, “But you know, she would not have been at my side, she would not have supported me in that way, if from the first second she hadn’t known that I was innocent.”

As has been their habit after every key DSK TV moment over the past four months, Strauss-Kahn’s closest allies were out in force, the first to react in the media after the interview. Fellow former Socialist cabinet minister Jack Lang told the BFMtv news channel that he felt Strauss-Kahn had spoken the “language of the heart.” “I am proud to be his friend,” said Lang. “I hope today that those who fought him will accept to surrender their weapons.”

But the lawyer representing Nafissatou Diallo’s interests in France, Thibault de Montbrial, was clearly not ready to bury the hatchet. He told Agence France Presse he thought the interview was “a public relations operation that was totally controlled, without any spontaneity, in either the questions or the answers.” Montbrial accused Strauss-Kahn of making Vance’s report “say things it doesn’t say.”

There is, of course, another case against Strauss-Kahn in progress in France, an attempted rape accusation brought by the writer Tristane Banon, 30 years his junior, for a 2003 incident. Strauss-Kahn did not linger when asked about that case, but told Chazal, “The version that has been presented is a version that is imaginary, that is slanderous,” saying he has filed his own complaint against Banon for slander.

Banon’s mother, Anne Mansouret, told AFP after the interview, “He explained nothing and engaged in an exercise in theater after having had to practice a lot.” Mansouret, an elected Socialist, said, “He told us a very nice story without giving us the basics that would have enabled us to know what really happened.”

The Monday morning pundits may not be as ready, either, to lay down arms, now that Strauss-Kahn has finally given them something to work with. But he may have saved himself the worst of the brickbats by not making any promises to return to politics. Indeed, 53 percent of those polled by IFOP for the Journal du Dimanche weekly hoped DSK would use this interview to retire from politics. With the Socialist primary now well underway without him, Strauss-Kahn refused to endorse a candidate and seemed in no hurry to return to the ring himself. If there were any need for more evidence of how much of a careless waste—at the very best—Strauss-Kahn’s nine-minute interlude in Sofitel Room 2806 was on that day in May, it was in the early reactions to the end of the interview, with even rivals and critics praising DSK’s analysis of the economic crisis. Strauss-Kahn, looking more comfortable than he had over the previous 18 minutes, urged drastic action in favor of Greece, pressing European allies to take the losses and eat Greek debt. Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent for the left-leaning daily Libération who famously blogged as early as 2007 that Strauss-Kahn’s skirt-chasing could cost him dearly in the United States as he took the IMF job, tweeted in French as the interview wrapped up, “On the crisis, DSK is excellent. ‘We must take the loss.’ Too bad, after all.”