02 July 2011

NYC to DSK: Ooops!

DSK with his wife, journalist Anne Sinclair

Political correctness turns out to be more perilous than one might assume. (After all, isn’t it usually safe to be correct?) Since the head of the International Monetary Fund, French Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in New York on charges of sexual assault, I’ve been fighting the urge (and losing the battle) to look for conspiracies almost everywhere. After all, the timing of the case could hardly have been more convenient to the reelection ambitions of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, such that the perpetual query of the conspiracy theorist, “Who stands to benefit?” was easily answered.

I was hardly alone in entertaining conspiracy theories — public-opinion surveys showed that a majority of French people suspected a set-up — and even the most far-fetched theories got my attention, if not my credence. But the one possibility I refused to consider was that the alleged victim, a maid in a posh New York City hotel, might have pressed false charges. As a liberal and as a feminist, I’m almost physically incapable of impugning her motives — I cringe and shudder at the suggestion. But late Thursday, as revelations from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office began to hit the presses, I was forced to reevaluate my position.

The alleged victim, who’s been identified by name in the French press, may well have been raped by DSK; there’s physical evidence to corroborate some of her claim, and DSK reportedly doesn’t deny that sexual relations occurred, though the matter of consent remained a question. But without witnesses, the case comes down to he-said-she-said, and she turns out to have serious credibility issues, allegedly including false or exaggerated claims of sexual abuse in her native country, a number of shady-seeming, possibly drug-related activities and companions, and a damning, tape-recorded phone conversation in which she reportedly outlined a plan to press false charges.

If indeed she tried to frame Strauss-Kahn, she chose her subject wisely — to a point — and really, he did make it awfully easy. Wealthy, powerful, and (don’t try to tell me it didn’t matter) Jewish, DSK has a long, unflattering history, much of it shrouded in rumor and secrecy, although other women who’d received his unwanted attention were quick to step forward. But precisely because so much public scrutiny was directed toward the case, it was impossible for the alleged victim to conceal dubious chapters of her own history, or for the prosecution to overlook discrepancies in her account.

While (as of this writing) the D.A.’s office is still pursuing the case, probably on lesser charges, it’s hard to see how they can continue: what jury would be able to hear the alleged victim’s testimony without conceding reasonable doubt in favor of the accused?

Curiously, this hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theorists, or even slowed them down much. For example: the prosecution’s case has fallen apart, but why did we learn about it only after French finance minister Christine Lagarde, a member of Sarkozy’s government, was named to replace Strauss-Kahn at the IMF? (My own theory: prosecutors waited until the last possible minute because they were frantically trying to find anything that might make their witness even remotely credible.)

Perhaps understandably, the French have been horrified by the whole business, from the perp walk to the coverage by New York’s tabloids. As Le Monde observed, the mere fact of DSK’s being French was sufficient to damn him in the New York Post, which is ever eager to take on any and all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,”* but hardly anybody in this country seems to have dawdled before rushing to judgment. Americans may congratulate ourselves that, yes, by golly, we live in a great nation where the legal system takes seriously even a lowly chambermaid’s claims against a powerful man — but the French won’t be lining up any time soon to copy our example.

It remains to be seen exactly how much damage has been done to DSK’s reputation, and whether he can resuscitate his political career in time for the 2012 presidential election, or any other. We’ve heard plenty of truth and manifold assertions as to his questionable behavior and character, and while the French historically have maintained a line between private and public lives, this episode has got to be embarrassing to a lot of people who might otherwise support DSK, and to DSK himself. Will he want to vindicate himself in some dramatic fashion, or else prefer to duck out of the public eye for a while or forever? I’ve long found his political career quite interesting — and at least in the near term, I’m betting it will be only more fascinating.

For we’ve learned a lot about human nature in the past few weeks. Some of these lessons we ought to have known already, and others we refused to admit. They bear repeating, however, and I’m greatly sorry that Honoré de Balzac isn’t around to write ’em up. What an installment of La Comédie Humaine this might have been!

I hasten to remind you that the Human Comedy, like the DSK case, is no laughing matter.

*NOTE: Even the more staid members of the American press failed to distinguish themselves in this affair. For example, this morning’s Washington Post was published with reference to French Socialist “Francine” Aubry. Her name is Martine, a fact which is easily checked.

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