At the height of the scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn last year, New York City tabloids ran headlines that compared him to the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. It was just one of the many Francophobe insults rained down on the head of the man who had been the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and had seemed destined to win the presidency of France in this year’s elections. Tabloids love to see the mighty brought low, and DSK’s ignominious arrest in New York on charges that he attempted to rape a hotel maid and forced her to give him oral sex certainly did that.
Ever since, even though those criminal charges in the maid case were dropped, other revelations about DSK’s amazingly heedless hedonism have continued. So it’s not really much of a surprise that he turned himself in for questioning today in connection with a ring of prostitutes run out of a luxury hotel in Lille, France. Indeed, he said last year when initial stories about the Lille case broke that he looked forward to talking to the cops to clear things up.
We don’t know exactly what he’ll say in his defense, but judging from his lawyer’s remarks in recent days, we have a suggestion: “Messieurs,” he might begin, “I am, indeed, Pepé Le Pew.”
“Just as that suave, debonair, and wonderfully charming skunk pursued a cat that he mistook for one of his kind, understanding her efforts to escape as coy flirtation, so, too, have I made mistakes now and then,” DSK could explain to the police, as indeed he has explained, in somewhat conspiratorial terms, through a semiofficial biographer. “Did I think that maid at the Sofitel was unwilling? So many women play that game with me. Did I know the women at the parties and orgies I attended in France and Washington and New York were prostitutes? Of course not. Why on earth would I ask? How could I even suspect?”
Maybe you think this isn’t funny, and I admit it isn’t, very. But apart from the name of the skunk, this really is the general line taken by Strauss-Kahn’s defenders.
The case in Lille suggests that some French businessmen may have sent willing women Strauss-Kahn’s way because they knew his tastes and wanted to curry favor with the man they thought would be the next president of France. If he is ever charged with anything, which is doubtful, it will be that he benefited from the misappropriation of his sycophants’ company funds, since some of them may have written the prostitutes off as different sorts of “entertainment” on their expense accounts. But if Strauss-Kahn had no knowledge of any of that, and all he did was attend the parties and take advantage of whatever the women had to offer, which he has admitted through his lawyer, then he’s off the hook.
“People are not always clothed at these parties,” DSK attorney Henri Leclerc told a French radio station recently. “I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude.”
In the case of Nafissatou Diallo, the African immigrant chambermaid who had managed to build a life for herself and her daughter in the United States despite her poverty and illiteracy, Strauss-Kahn’s supporters have suggested that she was out for money, too: that maybe that’s why she submitted to his allegedly brutal demands for fellatio, rather than because she feared for her job, as she told Newsweek in an exclusive interview. DSK’s defenders go further. They say Diallo brought the charges against him because she was upset he hadn’t left behind a big tip when he checked out of his luxury suite at the Manhattan Sofitel. His American lawyers, while making that first argument, are also careful to say that he paid Diallo nothing for her supposed services. Given his line in the Lille affair, perhaps we could say Strauss-Kahn didn’t pay Diallo … either.
A cottage industry of conspiracy theory flourished for a few weeks. The thrust was that Diallo somehow tricked DSK into letting her perform oral sex on him in a plot conjured by Strauss-Kahn’s political enemies. His Pepé Le Pew penchant for not asking too many questions, or not understanding the answers, was part of that picture, too.
So the Lille case continues. Strauss-Kahn can be questioned over a period of 48 hours in this first go-round. In New York, prosecutors threw away the case, claiming that past lies in other circumstances made Diallo too unreliable to put on the stand. Her attorneys continue to pursue a civil case, and she continues to live on the edge of real poverty.
Strauss-Kahn’s defiantly loyal, very wealthy, and exceedingly well-connected wife, Anne Sinclair, has started rebuilding her journalistic career now that she’s back in France. (Washington was a bit of a wasteland for her.) She’s been named the editor of the new French version of the Huffington Post. DSK, meanwhile, has been giving speeches in faraway corners of the world—one of the first was China—where he can expect to earn good fees and few headlines. Bit by bit, he may be able to rehabilitate his image as a thinker on global issues, however thoughtless he was in the company of women he’d never met before. But maybe the New York tabloids can be forgiven for thinking this whole business stinks.