The abrupt reversal of fortune in the case of The People of New York v. Dominique Strauss-Kahn has unleashed a torrent of commentary in the French media. In the six weeks that elapsed between the shock of the initial charges and the aftershock of last Friday's prosecutor’s letter detailing problems with the case, France had gradually accustomed itself to the idea that the man who many thought would be the country's next president might spend the rest of his life in an American prison. Now, however, Strauss-Kahn's friends are calling for his total rehabilitation, even though serious charges are still pending in New York. Presidential-election handicappers are trying to figure out the implications for the 2011 Socialist party primary and the spring 2012 elections. And just as the noose loosened in New York, charges were filed in France in another case dating from 2003.
Consider first the sudden boldness of DSK’s defenders. Robert Badinter, a highly respected former minister of justice, appeared on the nightly TV news on the day DSK was freed from house arrest to denounce what he characterized as an unseemly and degrading rush to justice, “a media execution.” His anger was amplified by the ubiquitous Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was particularly offended by what he called the “obscene” description of injuries to the alleged victim offered to the press by her lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, on the courthouse steps. Badinter and Lévy, both friends of DSK, chose to portray the discrepancies in his accuser’s story as exonerating him of all charges and called for his good name to be restored. The French press has echoed stories from New York critical of the prosecutor’s office, blaming alleged leaks of information damaging to DSK on the fact that the Manhattan district attorney is an elected official who therefore has an incentive to prosecute high-profile cases particularly aggressively. (French prosecutors are appointed and responsible only to their hierarchical superiors, not to the voters.)
Overnight, the question that riveted the attention of the French media turned from “Could he conceivably be guilty?” to “Is it too late for him to make the Socialist primary and run for president?” None of the contenders for the job wished to appear too eager to stand in his way on the basis of the “mere technicality” that he remains accused of a serious crime in New York. If necessary, the filing date for the primaries could be postponed, said one potential rival, while one of DSK’s strongest backers, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who had only recently thrown his support to party leader Martine Aubry, suggested that DSK might want to take a breather after his eagerly anticipated triumphal return thus hinting that a DSK run might prove inconvenient for party allies who ha already adjusted their strategies. After the initial euphoria, most Socialists now seem to have resigned themselves to the unlikelihood of a DSK presidential run. And France2 reported tonight that DSK has now told friends that he is out of the race.
Meanwhile, new theories of the case emerged. A story that Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. and New York police chief Ray Kelly had ties to French President Sarkozy, pushed by L’Express and Le Point, faded once it became clear that the police and prosecutor had diligently pursued the discrepancies in the accuser’s story, but a new theory, advanced by Socialist deputies close to DSK, proposed a connection between Accor, the parent company of Sofitel, and the Élysée. The implication, to date wholly unsubstantiated, is of course that DSK was set up by the man he had once hoped to defeat.
Meanwhile, as the likelihood of a conviction in New York wanes, Tristane Banon, whose story of having been attacked by DSK in Paris in 2003 was revived in light of the American events, has now filed charges of attempted rape, and DSK’s attorneys have filed a counter-charge of “slanderous accusation.” Thus even if the New York case ends in dismissal, the French legal tangle will likely preclude a presidential run. This new case may influence the French presidential race in yet another way, however, since one probable witness is the currently leading Socialist candidate, François Hollande, to whom Banon claims she told her story shortly after the 2003 incident.
Finally, DSK’s attorneys acknowledge that their client did have a sexual encounter with his accuser but deny a New York Post story that he paid for it. Le Monde published this information without comment, as though having sex with an unknown woman in a hotel room, whether consensual or not, had no bearing on his political future. It is by no means clear, however, that this opinion is shared by a majority of voters a point that the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen has been exploiting since the case first broke. Some polls show that she now has a chance of making it to the second round of France’s two-round presidential elections, which would be a major victory.
Arthur Goldhammer is a Senior Affiliate at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, and blogs about French politics at http://artgoldhammer.blogspot.com.