The D.S.K. Affair

It goes without saying that the news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or D.S.K., as he is called everywhere, the head of the I.M.F., long time French socialist politician and the leading candidate to oppose President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s election, has been arrested for attempted rape here in New York—and taken off a plane at J.F.K., at that—has shocked, overwhelmed, and generally bouleverséd all of Paris. (His lawyer has said that he plans to plead not guilty.) “A thunderbolt” and “a political bomb” are among the milder descriptions. It is no secret—or, closer to the truth , an open secret—that D.S.K. had a, well, J.F.K.-like reputation with women; French habits and French libel laws kept the nature and extent of this reputation circumscribed, but much of it came out, and a little more so is now. Gilles Savary, a deputy for the Socialist party in the European parliament, wrote on his blog,

To tell the truth, everybody knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine; what distinguishes him from plenty of others is his propensity not to hide it. In Puritan American, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism, they tolerate infinitely better the sins of money than the pleasures of the flesh. It would be easy to trap a personality so unresistant to feminine attractions as D.S.K.

Savary adds that his entourage was waiting for something like this, if not this bad.

As long ago as 2007, the Brussels correspondent of Libération The larger context, of course, is that D.S.K. was not so much the white knight as the perpetual King Arthur of the Socialist Party, forever spoken of as the man who might come to its rescue without ever doing so. He was seen as the likeliest candidate to win against Sarkozy largely because he had a reputation as a man of sense—odd and ironic, given his other reputation—a rational, pragmatic centrist. His difficulties, though, were more formidable than might have been apparent; there is a great difference between wanting an office and actually campaigning for it, and his role as the head of the “liberal” I.M.F. was not likely to please the militants of the Socialist party, who resemble the Tea Party base of our Republican party in their suspicion of any possible flirtation with the other side’s ideology.

(The hypothesis of a piege, or trap, set by his political enemies is taken surprisingly seriously by some intelligent people, to whom the idea that a man in his position would assault an unknown woman in the middle of the day seems improbable enough to feed a certain paranoia. Of course, the idea that the N.Y.P.D., or a “coached” hotel maid, would have been instruments of such a trap seems improbable, too. And Americans know well that men of power and appetite can act in seeming improbable and self-destructive ways, and in the middle of the afternoon, too.)

All of Paris, journalistic Paris, political Paris, has been vibrating for months about the slightly pathological view M. Straus Kahm seems to hold about women. I have myself been something of a victim in a duel with him where he has been extremely inappropriate in his attitude.

But for lovers of France and French life, there is something deeply depressing not only in the apparent elimination of one of the more plausible alternatives, but by what many in Paris see as the “Italianization” of French life—the descent into what might become an unseemly round of Berlusconian squalor, matched by an inability to renew the political scene with new faces. The endless repetition of names and places, including D.S.K.’s, has been a feature of French political life for too many years: Alain Juppé, brought in as Foreign Minister in a deus ex machina like move very recently, was the Prime Minister under Chirac (my own first piece from France for The New Yorker, a long time ago, was about his housing troubles and my own) while Martine Aubry herself is the daughter of the former European magus Jacques Delors. There’s too strong a sense right now of a Daumier-like rotation of the same faces and the same weaknesses on the same endless, incestuous merry-go-round, with the paint peeling off the horses by now. (This is of course, partly true here, too: Newt Gingrich and Joe Biden were figures in the eighties. But Obama wasn’t.)

Intellectual legitimacy in France always lies somewhere on the left; but, from Poujade’s time on, popular protest is often on the right. Stasis and, a sense, fair or not, of complacent corruption at the center, always work in France to the advantage of the far right. It’s a depressing spectacle.