PARIS - It is a crazy story, one that could have only happened to him: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, whose multiple talents offered the chance to achieve the loftiest goals -- yet who was capable of sacrificing it all for the most trivial of pleasures.
Magnetic and yet sometimes disturbingly flippant, more concerned with his freedom than his reputation, the man known as DSK is the star of a paroxystic adventure that saw him, within the space of six weeks, go from being the favorite in the upcoming French presidential elections to being charged, on Monday May 16, with sexual assault. As he faced the dire possibility of spending the rest of his days in jail, along comes redemption, on July 1, when serious doubts surfaced about the credibility of his accuser, a New York chambermaid.
The good thing about scandals -- and their danger -- is that, regardless of whether there is any truth to them, whomever they hit is left naked. Dissected. The truth of what happened on Saturday, May 14, in that suite at the Manhattan Sofitel in New York may well never be revealed, but what the incident did do was focus the spotlight on DSK, a man who, despite his public profile, had thus far shown an uncanny ability to keep his secrets secret. Suddenly, he faced not only the scanner of public opinion but the scrutiny of those who knew himfriends and colleagues who have spent the last six weeks psychoanalyzing not only him but themselves.
Between black Monday and holy Friday, DSKs friends -- elected officials, functionaries, former colleagues, business leaders, friends of the family -- got together to talk about him, and together, step by step, put together an informal profile. Without letting themselves get swept up in the tide of prevailing public opinion, they conducted a discreet, and perhaps overdue, examination of conscience. In pairs and small groups, in cafés and country homes, they analyzed the floor plan of the Sofitel suite and attempted to recreate the scenario, minute by minute. They were awed by how far DSK had fallen, how fast, and live he was for all to see -- and they were rarely sure that their friend was entirely beyond reproach.
The only "profile" they rejected out of hand was that of a violent man."Dominique runs at the slightest sign of conflict!" "He never spanked his kids." "Hes not a courageous man." A relative said: Hes too lazy to force anybody."
Passionately committed to the process, each one looked squarely at what they knew about DSK. "I dont know what he did in New York, but I know how he was at Bercy [the French Finance Ministry headquarters] and in Washington", says Stéphane Boujnah, who was DSKs advisor when the latter was Finance Minister and who now heads the Santander bank in Paris. He remembers how quickly DSK rallied even the most diehard technocrats at Bercy; how prodigious his memory was; how he played the financial crisis to advantage to morph the International Monetary Fund, that crusty and much disparaged institution, into a lever for global rescue; and his talent for explaining France to the world and the world to the French.
Everyone in their box
Each bit of input from those who know him best is just a piece of the puzzle of the larger psychological portrait of DSK. "One very particular thing about Dominique is that hell only tell people as much as they can handle," Boujnah continues. Everybody in their box: that was a Strauss-Kahn rule.
"His freedom was more important to him than anything else, says a deputy. Dominique always thought he could master his fate and organize things in such a way that he wouldnt have to sacrifice everything, and where only he had the key.
In this disparate club that included noted economists and CEOs and marketing mavens, each only knew about "Strauss" whatever seemed to suit their own character and values. To François Villeroy de Galhau, DSKs chief of staff at the Ministry of Finance, he was a père de famille, a fierce defender of a Christian ethic in finance, powerhouse economist, visionary. To Ramzi Khiroun, a communication adviser, DSK was a man who sent coded texts, shared unutterable secrets, and whose tangled life had to be untangled. To friends of his wife, Anne Sinclair, he was the sociable happy clan chief on family vacations in Marrakech. To bachelor friends, he was a ladies man.
Strauss-Kahn described himself by saying: Im a chameleon. Each person only got a part of him, and of his time, although all agree he was always late, with many adding and God knows where hed been.
This inner circle knows why the Sofitel story caught on: why it seemed credible, even if it was beyond the pale, with its dark side and also the possibility that it could have been part of a set-up. As one entourage member put it: In Dominique, you get the brightest guy of his generation -- and Darth Vader. The encounter of the IMF boss and the maid at the Manhattan Sofitel crossed the randomness of a hotel housekeeping schedule with the fatality of a temperament, the poison of doubt instilled on fertile ground.
The incredible story provided empirical evidence of DSKs weaknesses and raised questions about his suitability for the French presidency, for which he was thought before the scandal to be the strongest Socialist candidate to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy. Way too much of a penchant for pleasure and risk. An almost amoral confidence in his own good fortune. And finally, an entourage of facilitators ready to make excuses for him. Even if the American justice system drops all charges, for DSK this episode has meant getting a clinical examination that reveals the skeleton beneath the suit.
The way he related to women lies at the heart of all the suspicion surrounding him. In the Strauss-Kahn fan club, his insatiable need was not a taboo, in fact, it was viewed with amusement. In the 1990s, staffers at the Ministry of Finance would say "encore une" (another one) during DSKs absences from the office, while chief of staff Villeroy de Galhau preferred the explanation hes gone out on an errand.
Even business leaders and high-level government officials talked about his relentless womanizing. As one of his oldest advisors put it: "He has as many affairs in a month as you or I would have in our whole lives". DSK himself somewhat defensively told a Libération reporter last April: "Yes, I love women...So what?"
Eyes Wide Shut
Yet nobody was surprised when they saw Anne Sinclair by his side at the doors of the New York court buildingno one doubts that they love each other deeply. "Theyre a real couple", says Hélène Roques, who worked with DSK at the Ile-de-France regional council in the dark years after his resignation in 1999 from Lionel Jospins government. To which someone else who knows them adds: "As Baudelaire would say, he chose a woman who loves and understands him. If theyd all too often seen Sinclair pretend not to notice the way he ogled or texted other women, they also saw the public declarations of love she and he sent each other at difficult times, in blogs or even IMF communiqués. Those loyal to him refused to see that there was anything atypical about the couple.
But the shock of seeing press photos of their Dominique" in handcuffs had people going back and reviewing the past, checking for any signs that could have presaged something like this. "Lets face it, the erotic esthetic of Eyes Wide Shut is Dominiques preferred universe," says a former female colleague, referring to the Stanley Kubrick film. DSK advisor Nina Mitz remembers his enthusiasm for The Da Vinci Code, Dan Browns best-selling novel: he loved the encrypted messages, the machinations, the occult rituals, and the liberties taken with Christian morality, she says.
A former colleague remembers an argument he had with DSK. He was incensed that his boss could pursue a libertine lifestyle yet envisage running for president. In 2003, Le Nouvel Observateur reported that a nameless government minister had been spotted at a swingers soirée. Worried, he confronted DSK with this, pointing to the need for caution and advising him to tone it down. "Youre just saying that because youre jealous," he reports DSK as having replied in an untroubled tone of voice. Strauss-Kahn would later tell the French newspaper La Libération: "For years, there have been rumors of giant orgies. But Ive yet to see anything in the media about that..."
After the mention in the Nouvel Observateur, those working for DSK realized that he wasnt just simply a pleasure-seeker -- he was a gambler. "Except he doesnt just play chess with his computer. He plays with fire," a family member said. There have already been two occasions in the past when DSK thought his career was over. In November 1999, implicated in the Mutuelle nationale des étudiants de France (MNEF) scandal with charges of falsifying invoices, he was forced to resign from his post as Minister of Finance. Then, in October 2008, his affair with a Hungarian economist, Piroska Nagy, who was his subordinate at the IMF, made world headlines. Both times, he was absolved. As DSK is so fond of saying: "With a little intelligence, you can get out of anything..."
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photo - Greek Prime Minister's office