Everything You Need To Know About The IMF's Sexually Sketchy Chief

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has become instantly infamous in the US after his alleged assault of a hotel maid. But before that, he was known both as "the great seducer" and as the major hope of the French left. Let's take a tour of his past, present, and future.

The Career

According to a profile in Washingtonian (updated after the scandal broke), the French politician commonly known as DSK lost the Socialist nomination for president in 2006. Interested in "big international institutions where he could burnish his image," he campaigned for and won the job of head of the International Monetary Fund, traditionally held by a European. Through the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent debt crisis, he restored the oft-criticized IMF to a position of respect. Before his arrest, he was seen as a frontrunner in the 2012 French presidential election — polls gave him a 61-to-39-percent lead over Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Affairs

DSK was known as "the great seducer" in France for his reputation for extramarital affairs. One, with IMF employee Piroska Nagy, was especially well publicized. DSK said the affair was consensual, and his wife Anne Sinclair publicly forgave him, but Nagy says he abused his power to pressure her into a relationship: "I was not prepared for the advances of the IMF director general. I didn't know what to do … I felt damned if I do, damned if I don't."

Former Sarkozy advisor Thierry Saussez says Nagy wasn't alone: "Everyone in Paris has known for years he had something of a problem. Not many female journalists are prepared to interview him alone these days." And indeed, journalist Tristiane Banon says DSK assaulted her while she was interviewing him in an empty apartment. Liberation correspondent Jean Quatremer also mentioned DSK's "rapport" with women: "Too insistent, he often comes close to harassment. A weakness known by the media, but which nobody mentions. (We are in France.)" Strauss-Kahn himself was definitely aware of his reputation — when asked about the main obstacles between him and the presidency, he said, "money, women and my Jewishness."

The Fallout

Today a Manhattan Criminal Court judge ordered DSK to be held without bail pending trial for charges including sexual abuse, attempted rape, and criminal sexual act. He could get 25 years if convicted. But he may have a more immediate concern — in order to run in 2012, he has to declare his candidacy by July 13 of this year, which he presumably can't do if he's on trial for sex crimes in New York. His lawyers say he will plead not guilty, and that he was actually having lunch with his daughter when the alleged assault occurred.

The Reactions

Responses to DSK's arrest in France and elsewhere in Europe have ranged from disbelief to despair. Several commentators have used the language of natural disaster — Liberation titled its story on the arrest, "Shock. Political Bomb. Thunderclap," and political scientist Gerard Grunber said, "It's a political earthquake and a catastrophe for France." Ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet even acted like the country had been sexually assaulted: "As well as the presumed victim, the chambermaid, there is a proven victim … France."

Bernard Henri-Levy, author of the infamous pro-Roman Polanski petition, has published a lengthy defense of Strauss-Kahn on his website. Colleagues in the Socialist party also avow his innocence. Jean Christophe Cambadelis says, "his close friends cannot believe that he is guilty and he will soon be with us," and Harlem Desir calls the arrest a "terrible personal ordeal for Dominique Strauss-Kahn." Jean-Marie Le Guen opined,

Seduction, yes, but no way would he use constraint or violence. A certain number of facts, and certain aspects of the story we are hearing from the press, make this not credible.

Some supporters go further, hinting at a conspiracy. Says Christine Boutin of the Christian Democratic Party, "that he could be taken in like that seems astounding, so he must have been trapped." DSK himself appears to have laid some groundwork for this interpretation — in an April interview, he said "he could see himself becoming the victim of a honey trap."

Heather Horn of the Atlantic Wire points out another trend in European media: portraying DSK's assault allegations as a problem somehow caused by women. She finds headlines reading (in translation) "Strauss-Kahn, a career threatened by women" and "The parable of Strauss-Kahn, a powerful man haunted by women." Horn does a close reading of coverage at La Repubblica, the paper that ran the latter headline,

Take that brilliant hed/photo combination from La Repubblica and add to it this lede: "Bright, competent, respected. Many great qualities in public life and a weakness: women." The [paper] also adds that he's already "slipped on a sex scandal," but that the "charges of rape" in New York have probably finished him. What do these sentences have in common? They don't seem to think that assaulting women is much different than simply pursuing them.

Victoria Pynchon of Forbes offers a similar critique:

Despite the fact that DSK has been accused of rape before, the press chronically refers to him as a "womanizer." As it ever was. When a public official commits a crime, he's been naughty and the penalty is usually the loss of a job or a political office.

Reactions to DSK's arrest in a way mirror a lot of the dialogue about the rape allegations against Julian Assange. Here again we have the conflation of rape with womanizing (as though rape were simply a slightly more severe version of playing the field), the "honey trap" speculations, the hand-wringing over the alleged crime's political impact without regard to its impact on the victim. Regardless of whether DSK is convicted, everyone covering the case would do well to remember that it's quite possible to be a "great seducer" without ever assaulting anyone, and that in the aftermath of an alleged attack, it might be wise to consider the actual victim before bemoaning the political effects.

In Europe, Strauss-Kahn's A Powerful Man Brought Down By Women [Atlantic Wire]
Strauss-Kahn Lawyers See Alibi In Sex Case: Report [Reuters]
Defense Dominique Strauss Kahn [Bernard-Henri Levy]
Soul-Searching In France After Official's Arrest Jolts Nation [NYT]
IMF Head No Stranger To Sex Assault Accusations [AP, via CBS]
Dominique Strauss-Kahn: What Does The IMF Chief's Arrest Mean? [Washingtonian]
Judge Denies Bail To I.M.F. Chief In Sexual Assault Case [NYT]
Dominique Strauss-Kahn Faces Further Claim Of Sexual Assault [Guardian]
IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn Denied Bail After Charged With Rape, Sexual Abuse, Unlawful Imprisonment [ABC]
Strauss-Kahn Sex Case Throws Open French Election [Reuters]
SHOCKING STRAUSS-KAHN INTERVIEW: I Could See Myself Becoming The Victim Of A "Honey Trap" [Business Insider]
Strauss-Kahn's Pre-Crime "Honey Trap" Defense [Forbes]