Tristane Banon Takes a Victory Lap
The French novelist Tristane Banon, who accused former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of trying to rape her during an interview in 2003, last week put an end to the affaire. On Wednesday, she announced that she would not bring a civil suit after all against the one-time favorite for the French presidency, after Paris public prosecutors decided not to pursue attempted rape charges against him. The French authorities’ statement October 13 suggested, in a surprise move, that Strauss-Kahn may have faced charges for sexual assault had not the shorter statute of limitations—three years, compared to 10 for attempted rape—made prosecution impossible after 2006. To Banon, authorities have officially recognized she was a victim and that her story was not, as the accused had claimed, “imaginary.” Instead of new proceedings, Banon is backing a legislative battle to stretch the statute of limitations for future victims of sexual assault.
In Paris last week, 24 hours after Banon’s announcement ended her DSK fight, the writer was relaxed, candid, even chatty, at a hotel in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter, a literary bastion on the Left Bank, near the famous Café de Flore. She met with a small group of foreign press, selected by the publisher of her latest book, The Hypocrites’ Ball, and asked to keep the rendezvous’s time and place to themselves. (Foreigners, her publisher believes, have had a “healthier” approach to Banon and her story than the French, hence the secret foreign-only meetup.)
In a white lace 1980s-style jacket, over a turquoise T-shirt, faded gray slims and boots, Banon, 32, cuts a slight, delicate figure. Her trademark long blond bangs strike out at odd angles, whirling to and fro as she speaks. Her latest book is as slim as she is, 120 pages that document the six weeks between Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s May 15 arrest in New York and Banon’s decision to file an attempted rape charge against the disgraced politician in July. The Hypocrites’ Ball would disappoint a reader seeking salacious revelations, but is nevertheless a surprising read, written with literary aplomb, never lingering on the alleged 2003 attack, never mentioning Strauss-Kahn by name (using coded animal epithets instead). It has an Orwellian quality, a woman tracked into sudden, unsavory, very 21st-century celebrity, befriended and un-”friended” in a faceless social media landscape.
But at the Hotel Bel-Ami on Thursday, Banon pulled no punches. She spoke at length about the surreal five months since the political bombshell of DSK’s arrest in New York for allegedly attempting rape of Times Square Sofitel chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo, to Banon’s relief today, as she puts it, that “he will not be my president.”
“I sincerely feel that my fate was sealed when the media didn’t have a photo of Nafissatou Diallo,” says Banon, who had told her story (with names censored) on a television talk show in 2007 (an incident she regrets in the book) but had never pressed charges. “If they had had a photo of Nafissatou Diallo, they would never have sought out Tristane Banon,” she believes. “There was Strauss-Kahn, they needed someone to put up against him for people to understand... All of a sudden I see these images on television, French philosophers talking about me, commentating on my personality when I don’t even know them. And I go completely crazy.” As the affaire went on, the lies piled up. “The media said I was anorexic, that I was sleeping with my lawyer, that I was participating in orgies with my mother, that I had slept with all of Paris.”
“At three, four in the morning [on May 15], when I learn the news [of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest], I don’t yet know I will be talked about. My first reflex is to say, s--t, a great god exists somewhere. I don’t care if it’s for something he did to me, or to her, he will pay. S--t, he is going to pay. He has gotten caught,” recounts Banon. “My second reflex is to say to myself, because I know what happened to me, ‘Wait. Wait a few hours. It will be all cleaned up. In a few hours, we will hear no more of it.’ They’ll say, ‘Mistake, thanks, goodbye, nothing to see here.’”
Banon claims she had already told friends, before the Sofitel incident, when Strauss-Kahn, 62, looked set to run for France’s presidency, “If this man is president of my country, frankly, I’m emigrating.” But there had also been, she says, the sense that Strauss-Kahn’s attitude toward women—which DSK himself called “lightness” in his first TV interview in France after charges were dropped in New York—wouldn’t go unnoticed in the United States when he was named head of the IMF in 2007. “When he was sent to the U.S., journalists contacted me to prepare the article they would run when he got caught. I swear, it’s true,” she says. “We all said to ourselves, ooh-là, over there, it’s not like in France. He should be careful.” Banon says she thought, If I have a chance one day of seeing justice done ... If there’s a chance he will pay for what he is, it’s over there [in the U.S.]. Because we all know that over there, you can always be named Dominique Strauss-Kahn--the experience shows it--they will cuff you like anyone else, she says. “Of course, every justice system has its advantages and its inconveniences. The limits of that system are what they are with district attorneys who are elected.” (Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. asked that charges against DSK be thrown out in August.)
Banon, who has published three novels (as well as the nonfiction book of interviews she was compiling when she met with DSK in 2003), wrote The Hypocrites’ Ball on the advice of her lawyer’s wife, who suggested she needed an outlet, even if it wound up in a drawer, unpublished. “There are people who run for miles, or bike, or swim. But I don’t do any of that. So, she told me, ‘You have to write.’”
In the book, Strauss-Kahn is identified only as the “pig,” “baboon,” or “baboon-man.” The novelist says the monikers weren’t a safeguard against libel, since everybody knows who she means, but a writerly reflex. “What is written can perhaps be prettier than it is in real life. And I so I tried to make things a little prettier. And maybe that’s why I didn’t want to put in this monsieur’s name, because this monsieur’s name is really too ugly,” she says. “I find ‘the baboon’ suits him better than his real name,” she adds caustically. She says she would like to see DSK and his wife, Anne Sinclair, write something similar, the story behind the headlines. “I would like to understand what is happening in these people’s heads and what I consider total inhumanity. I would like to understand it from the inside, not from articles or books about [them].”
The claustrophobic account she gives in the book provides a look, even if you don’t know her story, at the post-modern pseudo-fame bubble in its uniquely 21st-century iteration—what happens in those 15 minutes of fame for someone who claims she didn’t go looking for them. Banon says it could have been written by others in similar, sudden bubbles, like Jérôme Kerviel, the rogue Société Générale trader who made global headlines in 2008 after his bank lost billions. “There are people who think I pressed charges to get attention. In 1990, no one would have said that. Since then, there is reality TV, there are people who are capable eating of cockroaches in the Amazon to be on TV. Me, I would never do that. But those people can say, ah, maybe one presses charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn to be on TV.”
By chance, French authorities rendered their decision October 13, the same day her book came out, closing the circle, she says. “Even I was fed up, even though I was at the heart of the scandal. I had had DSK/Banon up to here,” she says of the coverage. Even though the public prosecutor’s office decided against pursuing attempted rape charges, Banon calls it “an enormous relief” that they officially suggested something reprehensible did happen during her encounter with DSK in 2003. It was enough for her to not seek new proceedings, she says, even though, she admits, she found “titillating” the idea DSK could “wind up behind bars.” She says she thinks she and her lawyer (who worked her case pro bono) had a chance to win had she brought a civil case for attempted rape. “But it would be three, four, five years [until a verdict]. It would have given Monsieur Dominique Strauss-Kahn a lot of importance to give him my thirties. He already stole my twenties. For eight-and-a-half years, I have been ‘perhaps a liar.’ Now, that’s it. It’s over. It’s a total relief.”
“When this has happened to you, the only thing you think, night and day, is, ‘I want them to say officially that I am not a liar.’” Banon was in Camargue, in the south of France, when her lawyer, David Koubbi, called with the news. “He said, ‘Are you sitting down, are you really sitting down?, he sounded like he’d won the lottery,” recounts Banon. “And we screamed with joy.” She says, “So now, the press can say ‘cleared,’ ‘dismissed,’ whatever they like,” she says. “Officially, I am no longer a liar. It says it in black and white on my letter [from the public prosecutor’s office]. The letter doesn’t leave my side. It is folded in four and in my bag all the time. It’s my good luck charm. I think I’ll have it enlarged, framed somewhere.”
“Your whole daily life is completely turned upside down,” she says. “This story started on May 15. I was like you. I was getting ready for summer. We wondered which little flowery dress we’d be wearing—pretty basic preoccupations. And now, across the street from my place, they just put the Christmas lights up,” she says. “Where did those months go? Can I have them back? Well, no. Everything has disappeared,” says Banon, who claims, too, she lost friends in recent months, some for political reasons. (DSK, before his New York arrest, was seen as the left-wing’s best chance to win the presidency in 2012 after three consecutive election defeats.)
Going forward, Banon wants to get the three-year statute of limitations on sexual assault changed, unanimously, in Parliament. Already, the day after the Paris public prosecutor’s decision, former French Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet, a member of parliament, proposed a law to bring the statute into line with the limitation for filing attempted rape charges, 10 years. In recent months, Banon says, “I discovered, finally, that what women were telling me was exactly what I had lived through, thinking I was alone. It takes us all about seven to 10 years to understand that there is no solution other than pressing charges if we want, in our heads, to move on. There is no solution other than external recognition that the bad guy isn’t us,” Banon says. “And it can’t happen right away, because the first human reflex is denial: nothing happened. Indeed that’s a bit what produced the reaction people talked about on the TV show,” Banon suggests, alluding to critics who said the story she told on TV in 2007, through nervous laughter, made it not seem serious.
In Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Thursday, when she is asked what she will do when Strauss-Kahn makes a political comeback—because people forget, she’s told–Banon says it will be up to reporters to remind people. “I hope that if someday he tries to come back, you will bring all of this back out and that he will leave quickly and hide.” Banon hopes he “keeps a low profile to the end of his days. He is at the age of retirement, let him stay there.”
She scrunches up a white-lace sleeve to reveal a tattoo, in blue print inside her right elbow. “Ne jamais fuir, poursuivre.” Never flee, pursue. Or, the more prosaic double meaning, Never flee, prosecute. It is the motto of Banon’s lawyer’s firm. The “flee” has smudged, like a lesson that wants out.