In 10 minutes or less, an African-immigrant chambermaid changed the history of the world. Not through design or desire, as she tells the story, but by first consenting out of fear, then refusing out of pride to be the sexual victim of one of the planet’s most powerful men.
And while the details of the settlement inked in a Bronx court Monday remain sealed (earlier reports in the French press that $6 million was involved have been roundly denied), the explosive impact of the complaint for sexual assault lodged on May 14 last year by Nafissatou Diallo against then International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn continues to reverberate.
The sordid details of their acknowledged sexual encounter were the stuff of tabloid frenzy from the moment the story broke. Much of what was written was wrong or misleading, but this basic narrative is clear and uncontested:
Strauss-Kahn, or DSK, as he’s known, was getting ready to run for president of France. Although married to the prominent French heiress and journalist Anne Sinclair, Strauss-Kahn was a libertine of the old school. (Think Dangerous Liaisons.) As he juggled the finances of Europe and readied himself for the campaign trail, he was in full rut at the end of the second week in May 2011, attending an orgy in Washington one day, spending the night with one of his mistresses, then stepping out of the shower just before checkout time at the Sofitel in Midtown Manhattan only to find Diallo in his room.
She was 30 years younger than the 63-year-old DSK and several inches taller, and we know now that she was wearing two pairs of pantyhose as well as her underwear beneath her uniform: not exactly the attire of someone on the game. But she was a woman, and an African woman like at least one other lover he’d had, and he wanted her, and perhaps he really believed she wanted him.
When Diallo spoke to police afterward, she charged that this man had forced her violently into a corridor and onto her knees and compelled her to perform fellatio. She did so, she told Newsweek in an exclusive interview, because she was afraid if she hurt this guest in a $3,000-a-night suite she would be fired, and jobs are not that easy for illiterate single mothers to come by in New York City.
The DNA and other physical evidence entirely supported Diallo’s account. But DSK insisted that everything that happened was consensual. His high-paid lawyers and detectives pulled apart Diallo’s life and connections on the fringes of society. After a few weeks, prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against DSK because they didn’t think they could convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Diallo was telling the truth. The civil case just settled, if it had gone to court, would have required a lower standard of proof.
The incident may or may not have changed the way the French regard sexual harassment. Some commentators suggest this was a watershed in the Gallic mind akin to the impact Anita Hill’s complaint against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had on the American consciousness in 1991. I find that overstated, even when it comes to the U.S. Was Thomas punished? He’s still on the bench. Was President Bill Clinton chastened and forewarned? Ask Monica Lewinsky. Why would we think the French, of all people, would change the way they play the game of love, seduction, and intimidation just because one of their politicians is an egregious example of a man who … got caught?
The change is not in the mores of France, but in its geopolitical and economic history. We knew then, and it is even clearer now, that if Strauss-Kahn had run for president, he would have won. The incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, was so unpopular that even the squishy Socialist candidate François Hollande was able to defeat him. If DSK had triumphed, he’d have taken his randy ways right into the Elysée Palace, and heaven only knows what he’d have been doing on his desk with the key to the world’s third biggest nuclear arsenal practically in the next room. But, ironically, because DSK was a former minister of economy in Paris and a stellar administrator of the IMF in Washington, he’d have been in a much stronger, surer position to guide his country and his continent out of the very deep mess they’re in.
Indeed, Strauss-Kahn already is trying to rehabilitate his reputation on the lecture circuit, and doubtless hopes to rebuild his influence with behind-the-scenes advice to politicians who’ll listen, or to corporate interests that will pay. I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that he and Sinclair, who have been separated for months, find a way to get back together. But even the day after the news of the allegations broke last year, one of DSK’s close associates familiar with his intimate tastes and background admitted “he’s toast,” and he’s likely to remain so for a long time to come. He’s still waiting to hear what happens with charges against him in France for “aggravated pimping,” because he allegedly arranged for libertine parties with women who turned out to be call girls. His stature with the French public has sunk from rising star to risible lecher.
As for Diallo, on Monday she had her day in court, but nobody outside the chambers of Justice Douglas McKeon heard what was said. DSK did not attend, so she never had a chance to face him.
“I thank everyone who supported me all over the world,” Diallo said on the courthouse steps, a faint smile on her lips. “I want to thank everybody, thank God. God bless you all.”
Kenneth Thompson, one of her lawyers, called her “a strong and courageous woman who has never lost faith in our system of justice,” and suggested that “with this resolution behind her she can now move on with her life.”
But that probably won’t be any easier for her than for DSK. Diallo comes from a large and not entirely happy family that, according to African tradition, would likely try to stake a claim on everything she got from the settlement. Many people have convinced themselves that Diallo set up DSK in order to shake him down with a lawsuit, or that she was the tool of his political enemies who wanted to shake him out of the French presidential contest. But even DSK’s lawyers don’t go that far. What they and DSK have suggested is that the whole incident was about money: she expected a tip that she didn’t get; she took her revenge by having him arrested and charging him with sexual assault. Never mind that there was nothing in her record at work or in the evidence in the case that suggested premeditation.
One of the greatest ironies, if true, is that Diallo didn’t even know who DSK was until after television news reported his arrest. What she saw in front of her in the Sofitel suite was not a global economist and presidential aspirant; just a pudgy, dirty old man. Of such people and such incidents, sometimes, history is made.