The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is, or at least was once, a cornerstone of American law, and one that the French government has been rather quick to remind us of after the arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York on charges of sexual assault and rape. Which is somewhat ironic, given the inquisitorial nature of France’s Napoleonic Code.
But the presumption of innocence or guilt doesn’t seem to count for much in the courts of public opinion, however, and accusations and conspiracy theories are running rampant on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, where Mr Strauss-Kahn has long been a popular figure and would have been a serious challenger for the presidency in next year’s elections, the CSA opinion poll has indicated that 57% of those polled believe the charges against him are part of an elaborate plot to discredit him. Fully 70 percent of Socialist sympathizers agreed with that view, even though most French media have dismissed conspiracy theories. Some French journalists, who have described Mr Strauss-Kahn as ‘a charmer of women’ with a ‘taste for the fairer sex’, ‘unresistant to feminine attractions’ and his repeated harassment of women as being just a ‘romantic quirk,’ have chosen to dismiss the allegation of rape on the grounds that the woman is ‘très peu séduisant.’ Not very tempting. Mr Strauss-Kahn himself, perhaps rather unwisely, tweeted that ‘the lawyers were surprised at the appearance of the arrival of a very unattractive young woman’.
Nor is support for him confined to France; in the States, his attorneys are doing what attorneys usually do when defending a high-flying client charged with a heinous crime – blaming the victim. Sorry – ‘alleged’ victim. Mr Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, told the press that the forensic evidence ‘will not be consistent with a forcible encounter’, inferring that the maid consented to performing oral sex on Mr Strauss-Kahn. Mr Brafman’s conjecture is further bolstered by Mr Strauss-Kahn’s longtime friend, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, as well the conservative former speechwriter for Nixon and Ford, Ben Stein, both of whom have questioned how it would be possible for such a ‘short old fat man’ to forcibly rape a young hotel maid, a description rather less flattering than those employed by the French. And just about as apposite. Short old fat men can’t be rapists, apparently, and unattractive women are never their victims.
But according to Mr Stein, Mr Strauss-Kahn’s only ‘crime’ is being rich. ‘(T)his is a case about the hatred of the have-nots for the haves, and that’s what it’s all about. A man pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room? He’s got to be guilty of something. Bring out the guillotine.’ And the maid? She’s not Lara Logan, blue-eyed and blond, a respected professional journalist whose sexual assault in Egypt shocked the world. She’s black. Poor. An immigrant. A cleaner in a hotel. A single mother. A Muslim. Oh, and apparently, she’s ugly. One of those have-nots who hates the haves, the sort of people who are ‘complete lunatics’ who have stolen money, medication, even airline tickets from Mr Stein. She has to be guilty of something, naturally. Bring out the noose.
And Mr Stein and Mr Levy are not alone in this disturbing attitude. One Australian newspaper headline read: ‘Oh la la, IMF chief - and future French Prez - in rape scandal’, and began the article with equating sex and French politics with croissants and coffee. But there is nothing oh la la or romantic about a naked man who rushes out of a bathroom, chases a woman, grabs her, locks the door, drags her to the bedroom, rips at her clothing, and forces her to perform oral sex before she’s able to escape and runs for help from other hotel staff before ringing 911 in tears, distressed and traumatized.
Worse still is the New York Post’s nauseating insinuations that the maid might – might, mind you – have HIV or AIDS. This has got to be gutter journalism at its absolute lowest. The maid and her 15-year-old daughter (oh, do let’s drag her child down with her as well) live in a Bronx apartment in a fourth floor High Bridge ‘pad’ set aside by the Harlem United agency for HIV positive adults – although the Post ‘has not been able to ascertain whether the maid, 32, has HIV/AIDS because of medical confidentiality laws’, and the Harlem United workers weren’t ‘specifically addressing the maid’s living situation, only their agency’s housing policies.’ Phew! Well, that little disclaimer takes The Post off the hook, dunnit? But just in case you missed the point, the article’s authors, Jennifer Bain and Bob Fredericks, linked the maid’s claim that she was forced to perform oral sex on the IMF chief with the federal Centers for Disease Control confirming that is possible to become infected with HIV through oral sex. You might think she’s not only poor, black, an immigrant and a maid, but diseased as well, but we couldn’t possibly comment. I cannot even begin to describe how disgusting, how morally vacuous, how downright evil this hatchet job is, nevermind unprofessional and unworthy of being mistaken for anything remotely resembling ‘journalism.’
Yet – innocent until proven guilty seems to be a concept even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to have a problem with. While he agreed that marching Mr Strauss-Kahn through a gauntlet of police and photographers was a humiliating display, and certainly would be unfair if a defendant were to be found innocent, he then stated, ‘But if you don’t want to do the “perp walk”, don’t do the crime.’ Um, isn’t deciding if someone is innocent or guilty what the courts are supposed to be for, Mr Bloomberg?
There doesn’t seem to be any dispute that a sexual encounter did indeed take place between Mr Strauss-Kahn and the unnamed (at least unnamed in most American papers, but not in France) maid; the question seems to revolve around whether or not the sex was ‘consensual.’ In the court of public opinion, however, Mr Strauss-Kahn is having an increasingly rough time portraying himself as a suave, charming seducer rather than a sexual predator.
In May, the biggest headache for Mr Strauss-Kahn, affectionately known as DSK to his fans, was being snapped by paparazzi getting into a hundred-thousand-Euro Porsche parked outside his four-million-Euro Paris penthouse, thereby blowing his carefully crafted persona as a leftwing intellectual and champion of the common man, rather than just another arrogant overpaid fat cat technocratic champagne socialist, of which France has a remarkable superfluity. Even so, the polls still had him far ahead of Sarkozy that he could have easily not only beaten the current president, but knocked him out in the first round of voting.
Now, being seen as just a fat cat hypocrite would be preferable to the picture that is slowly emerging of Mr Strauss-Kahn. The first whiff of trouble for ‘the Great Seducer’ came in 2007, when French journalist Jean Quatremer wrote on his blog that Mr Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour toward women ‘verges on harassment.’ In 2008, Mr Strauss-Kahn admitted to having an affair with a junior colleague, Piroska Nagy, and was forced to apologise for a ‘serious error of judgment’ to his staff. But, despite Ms Nagy’s insistence that it was ‘absolutely accurate’ that she’d been coerced into having sex with Mr Strauss-Kahn, and even noting that ‘many female staff were unhappy about his behaviour’, the executive board of the IMF cleared him of abusing his position. Boys will be boys, you know. And boys will always back up their boy.
Then it went from bad to worse when Tristane Banon, the god-daughter of Strauss-Kahn’s second wife Brigitte Guillemette, claimed he lured the then 21-year-old trainee journalist to an anonymous studio flat in Paris in 2002 with the promise of an interview, then attacked her. She described Strauss-Kahn as acting like a ‘rutting chimpanzee’. ‘I kicked him, I called him a rapist, he didn’t seem to care,’ said Ms Banon. ‘It ended very badly, because we ended up fighting ... I told him clearly ... We fought on the ground, it was more than a couple of slaps, I kicked him, he opened my bra, tried to open my jeans ... It finished very badly ... I got out of there and he immediately sent me a text message saying ‘So, are you scared of me?’ ... I had said the word ‘rape’ when we were struggling to scare him, and it didn’t seem to scare him, as if he was used to it. After [the incident] he wouldn’t stop sending me text messages saying ‘Are you scared of me?’
But France, where only 10 percent of 75,000 rape victims each year ever go to the police, has a long tradition of excusing the behavior of rich and powerful Pepe le Pew style ‘seducers’, and Ms Banon’s mother, Anne Mansouret, talked her daughter out of pressing charges, warning her that being attacked by a senior politician would not be advantageous to her fledgling career. While Ms Banon did mention the attack on a French chat show in 2007, Mr Strauss-Kahn’s name was discreetly bleeped out. It would take a young maid reporting being sodomized in a New York hotel to convince Ms Banon to finally, if belatedly, file a report with the Paris police and to publically name Mr Strauss-Kahn as her attacker.
After Ms Banon went public with her story, yet another woman came forward to claim she was another recipient of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s unwelcomed desire. ‘Martina’ (not her real name), a reporter for a continental newspaper, recalled how Mr Strauss-Kahn stalked her after a group interview. ‘He got my phone number from his embassy or the Institut Francais and started calling me, saying, “If you go out with me, you can have your own interview”,’ she said. He later turned up in her city and said that she could have an interview, ‘but I had to go and spend the weekend with him in Paris or somewhere. He was incredibly insistent ... He made it almost explicit that I had to sleep with him for the interview.’
And the scandals just keep on bubbling to the surface. French politician Aurelie Filipette said that Strauss-Kahn had groped her in 2008, and that she would ‘forever make sure’ she was never ‘alone in a room with him.’ In a book published last year in France,Les secrets d’un presidentiable, it’s alleged he had sexually assaulted a maid in Mexico while on a business trip in that country, but the victim never went to the police. Thierry Ardison, a talk show host, has been quoted as saying Mr Strauss-Kahn’s propensity for ‘coming on hard’ to women was well known. ‘Everyone knew about it. I have 14 women pals who have told me, “He tried to jump me”.’ Mr Strauss-Kahn was evidently a regular to Les Chandelles, a chic Paris nightclubs for echangistes, or ‘swingers,’ and Kristin Davis, the Manhattan Madam, said she had provided young women for Strauss-Kahn in 2006, paying $1,200 in cash for two-hour sessions and requesting ‘an all-American girl’. Afterwards, the prostitute complained that he was ‘rough and angry’ and told Ms Davis not to send any new girls to him.
Michel Debre, admittedly an outspoken member of Sarkozy's conservative party and hardly a friend of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s, has alleged that Strauss-Kahn had engaged in other misconduct at the hotel. ‘It’s not the first time that DSK is involved in this kind of actions at the Sofitel,’ he told l’Express. ‘That’s where he always stayed. It happened several times and for several years. Everyone knew it in the hotel.’ Sofitel, a French luxury hotel chain understandably worried more about their reputation than Mr Strauss-Kahn’s, have denied the charges, claiming they were ‘baseless and defamatory.’ To the hotel, that is. However, Assistant District Attorney John A. McConnell revealed in court that New York authorities were investigating at least one other case of ‘conduct similar to the conduct alleged.’ The police and the DA are taking it all quite seriously.
The defense may try to spin this as a convoluted plot by his political enemies to frame him, but if the pattern Mr Strauss-Kahn seems to have set holds any water at all, then it may be quite an uphill battle for his lawyers. Judge Melissa Jackson on Monday denied him bail after expressing concern that authorities took him into custody on an airplane just minutes before it was scheduled to take off, deeming him a flight risk despite the $1 million in cash as a bail guarantee. France and the US do not have an extradition agreement.
If convicted, Strauss-Kahn could face up to 25 years in prison. Either way, his prospects for the French presidency is in tatters, as well as his job with the International Monetary Fund, from which he’s had to resign.
But the court of public opinion, regardless of the very real impact it has on the accused and the victims alike, or their careers, has a slightly different agenda than whether Mr Strauss-Kahn is legally guilty of sexual assault or not. Like Lara Logan’s ordeal, this has opened up a very ugly can of worms when it comes to how society reacts to men attacking women, and the continued penchant for far too many, particularly those in the media, to excuse such behavior as being acceptable depending on the status of the man, or the woman. It would be nice to think all this might go some way to amending an outmoded and insidious attitude toward sexual assault. But I rather think that it’ll be a long, long time before all women can expect to be treated any better by the press, or governments, or the IMF, than they are by their attackers.