In Strauss-Kahn Trial, France Discards a Privacy Taboo

PARIS — As the trial of
Dominique Strauss-Kahn
comes to a close on Friday,
some here are breathing a
sigh of relief after cringing,
gasping and giggling
uncomfortably for weeks
while the sexual proclivities
of the man once thought
likely to become France’s
president were paraded
before the world.
Others lamented the ending
of a case that had shined a
rare spotlight on a
chauvinistic culture where
highflying, powerful men can
misbehave with impunity.
Though it is widely expected
that Mr. Strauss-Kahn will be
acquitted — the prosecutor
himself requested this week
that pimping charges against
him be dropped — the case is
nevertheless seen as having
crossed a threshold in a
country where the privacy of
public figures has long been
considered sacrosanct. After
weeks in which Mr. Strauss-
Kahn’s self-described “rough”
sexuality was dissected in the
courtroom and cafes across
the nation, a taboo has been
broken, some argued, that
may now make the personal
life of almost any politician
fair game.
“With DSK, we have entered a
new phase,” Michel
Taubmann, a biographer of
Mr. Strauss-Kahn, said, citing
the May 2011 episode at a
Sofitel hotel in New York,
where Mr. Strauss-Kahn, the
former head of the
International Monetary Fund,
was accused of assaulting a
housekeeper, as the starting
point.
“Before the affair in New
York, everyone knew that
DSK had a controversial
private life, but as long as he
wasn’t accused of a crime, no
one had the right to talk
about it,” Mr. Taubmann
said. “Now there is no
hesitation to look through the
keyhole at the private lives of
public figures. But unlike in
the United States, it is not
because of moralizing. The
French are not so easily
shocked.”
Rather, he noted, the French
are still more likely to be
scandalized by a minister
who evades taxes than by one
who sleeps with a prostitute.
Indeed, in France,
Clintonesque mea culpas
about sexual indiscretions
have long been considered
unnecessary, even
undignified — and Mr.
Strauss-Kahn made no
apologies for his sex life.
“I am starting to get a little
fed up,” he said at one point
in response to the persistent
questioning of his sexual
conduct at the orgies he
attended. “There are no
charges weighed against me
that focus on my sexual
behavior,” he added, noting
that he was not on trial for
“deviant sexual practices.”
Still, the country was treated
to a level of detailed
testimony on sexual
indiscretion that surely
surpassed what President Bill
Clinton was made to endure
over the liaison that
eventually led to his
impeachment in 1998.
If nothing else, the Strauss-
Kahn case has revealed the
limits of what even the
libertine French will tolerate
from their leaders. For many,
Mr. Strauss-Kahn had gone
too far.
“There is little doubt that Mr.
Strauss-Kahn is now
politically dead,” said Chloé
Triomphe, legal
correspondent for the radio
broadcaster Europe 1, who
has closely covered the case.
“But while many people feel
that DSK behaved like a pig,
they also think he is a very
able and competent
economist and still has a role
to play. It is a very French
reaction.”
Mr. Strauss-Kahn, 65, stands
accused, along with 13 other
defendants, of abetting
prostitution. During a three-
week trial in Lille, in
northern France, that
featured a sex club owner
nicknamed Dodo, a former
police chief and several
prostitutes, magistrates tried
to prove that he had used
cronies to hire prostitutes for
elaborate sex parties in Lille,
Paris and Washington.
If convicted, he could face up
to 10 years in prison and
fines of over 1.5 million
euros, or $1.7 million. But
most legal experts say that
Mr. Strauss-Kahn will be
acquitted after five of the six
plaintiffs in the case against
him dropped their
accusations this week, citing
lack of evidence. A verdict is
expected in the spring.
“This was not a Mafia
network that was
dismantled,” the prosecutor,
Frédéric Fèvre, told the court
this week, rather a group of
friends trying to “satisfy egos,
ambitions and, quite simply,
physical desires.”
But even as the chief judge
insisted from the outset that
the court was not an arbiter
of public morality, Mr.
Strauss-Kahn was grilled on
questions like his seeming
penchant for sodomy
described by two prostitutes
at the trial and the
circumstances that led a
prostitute to photograph
herself in his office at the
I.M.F. in Washington. He was
also forced to explain text
messages in which he
referred to women as
“equipment.”
The trial marked a final
disgrace but also a public
catharsis of sorts for Mr.
Strauss-Kahn, who was forced
to endure a so-called perp
walk in New York and then
resign as head of the I.M.F. in
2011 after the hotel
housekeeper leveled her
accusations. Those charges
were dropped. Buffeted by
scandals, Mr. Strauss-Kahn
was ostracized from politics.
He divorced his glamorous
wife. A close business
associate committed suicide.
But in the Lille court, Mr.
Strauss-Kahn, a man who had
lost so much, seemed a man
with nothing left to lose. Mr.
Strauss-Kahn discussed his
sexual predilections with the
matter-of-fact demeanor of a
banker describing
macroeconomic policy.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn lost his cool
only after a lawyer for one of
the prostitutes insisted that
Mr. Strauss-Kahn must have
known she was a prostitute
since he had brutally
sodomized her. “I must have
a sexuality, which, compared
to the average man, is more
rough,” he told the court,
adding that it was “absurd” to
conclude that this required
him to turn to prostitutes.
He insisted that he did not
know some of the women
were prostitutes, and that
sexual ardor was no crime. In
France, paying a prostitute is
not illegal, but soliciting or
supplying a prostitute is.
For all his humiliation, Mr.
Strauss-Kahn retains some
currency with the French.
According to a poll of 1,008
people aged 18 or older by
Odoxa taken before the trial
for Le Parisien, 79 percent of
those polled thought Mr.
Strauss-Kahn would have
been a better president than
the current one, François
Hollande.
Mr. Hollande himself had his
personal life put on display
when a gossip magazine
broke news that he was
having an affair with an
actress, Julie Gayet.
Though most French remain
blasé about Mr. Hollande’s
affair, that has not stopped
gossip magazines from
investigating his personal
life. Recently, the media and
opposition politicians raised
questions after Ms. Gayet was
seen with a presidential
bodyguard, provoking
criticism that she appeared
to be receiving security paid
for by the public, though she
is not the first lady.
In the case of Mr. Strauss-
Kahn, the interest in his
private life was ultimately
more than just an appetite
for prurient spectacle, those
who have followed the trial
closely said.
It was not the bacchanalian
scenes of libertinage pored
over in a Lille courtroom that
appeared to offend French
sensibilities, but rather the
lack of judgment and
recklessness of a powerful
man, who believed that he
was invincible.
“His was a huge downfall,”
said Mr. Taubmann, the
biographer. “A man who was
once on the cover of
Newsweek for saving the
international financial
system found himself first in
Rikers and now in a Lille
court, alongside a pimp. Can
he be a new man, a better
man? Anything is possible.”