Strauss-Kahn Tumbles From Front-Runner to Rikers Inmate

IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn
IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Photographer: Andrew Gombert/Pool via Bloomberg

Less than two weeks ago, French bookstores began carrying a campaign biography intended to boost the front-runner for next year’s presidential election. It was entitled “The Real Story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.”

Now, Strauss-Kahn’s political prospects are in ruins as he was ordered held without bail yesterday by a New York judge and sent to the city’s Rikers Island jail complex after being charged with sexually assaulting and trying to rape a hotel housekeeper. Images of the head of the International Monetary Fund, looking wan and haggard, being escorted handcuffed by police -- in what is popularly known to New Yorkers as the “perp walk” -- played endlessly on French television.

“Yesterday, this man was a leader, he had the bearing of a president,” Michel Taubmann, the 54-year-old author of the book, said in an interview. “Now? I saw images of him in court; destroyed face, amid delinquents. Most likely his career is over. The next book could be ‘The Tragedy of Strauss-Kahn.’”

Strauss-Kahn, 62, who has topped the list in every election poll in the last six months, was taken off an Air France flight about to leave John F. Kennedy International Airport for Paris on May 14 and charged with attempting to rape the maid in his $3,000-a-night suite at a Sofitel hotel in midtown Manhattan. He will be pleading not guilty, his lawyer Benjamin Brafman has said. He faces as long as 25 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.

“One thing is certain: Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be the next president,” editorialist Paul-Henri du Limbert wrote in the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro yesterday. “In the space of 15 days, the new idol of the French left has exploded. Such a swift disintegration has rarely been seen.”

Bumps in Career

Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as he’s popularly known in France, has had bumps during his 25-year political career.

In November 1999, he resigned as France’s finance minister after magistrates began an investigation into irregularities at Mutuelle Nationale des Etudiants de France, a French student-insurance group based in a suburb of Paris. The probe centered on allegations that the company had paid him about $100,000 from 1994 to 1996 for legal work on a property deal that he never performed. Strauss-Kahn denied wrongdoing and was cleared by a Paris court in November 2001.

In 2008, a year into his IMF job, he had an affair with Piroska Nagy, a female economist at the fund. An IMF board investigation, released in October 2008, concluded that while the Strauss-Kahn had made a “serious error of judgment,” he shouldn’t be fired. He apologized to his staff and family.

‘I Like Women’

Strauss-Kahn was aware that his personal background contained political liabilities. Liberation newspaper reported yesterday that at an April 28 meeting with its editors in Paris, Strauss-Kahn listed “wealth, women and my Judaism” as the main obstacles to his presidential bid. “Yes, I like women, so what?” he told the newspaper.

His past had done little to dent his popularity. In a poll released April 10 by Liberation, 45 percent of the respondents said they’d like to see Strauss-Kahn as president, almost double the 23 percent who picked President Nicolas Sarkozy, 56. The two-round presidential elections will be held April 22 and May 6, 2012.

With Strauss-Kahn’s latest troubles, his Socialist Party has supported him, with its leader Martine Aubry calling for “presumption of innocence” until the allegations are verified. His wife Anne Sinclair, an American-born journalist and the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg -- France’s biggest art merchant in the first half of the 20th century -- is standing by him. Sinclair, who inherited paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Degas, said she believes he’s innocent.

In Limbo

Still, whatever the outcome of the investigation, there is recognition in France that Strauss-Kahn’s political ambitions will need to be put on hold.

“Everything is suspended, everything now depends on the U.S. courts,” said Stephane Rozes, founder of Paris-based Cap Institute, an political advisory firm. “Strauss-Kahn is in limbo.”

Born in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine to a tax adviser father and a journalist mother, Strauss-Kahn spent most of his youth in Morocco and Monaco, where his father worked. In 1972, he received a law degree from the University of Paris, and in 1975 he got a doctorate in economics from the same institution.

He spent the next two decades juggling parallel careers as an economics professor, lawyer and aspiring Socialist politician. In 1986, he was first elected to the National Assembly, representing the Alpine Haute-Savoie department.

IMF Record

He served as industry minister from 1991 to 1993 under successive Socialist premiers Edith Cresson and Pierre Beregovoy. In 1997, he returned to office as finance minister under Premier Lionel Jospin.

France’s gross domestic product grew 3.5 percent in 1998, the fastest pace that decade. He took advantage of the growth to cut the budget deficit to below 3 percent of GDP in 1999, the level required for euro membership, from 4 percent in 1996.

In his first attempt at the presidency, Strauss-Kahn was beaten by Segolene Royal in the Socialist Party’s primaries in 2006. Sarkozy, who won the presidential election in 2007, lobbied for Strauss-Kahn to become head of the IMF, a job traditionally held by a European.

Strauss-Kahn’s IMF tenure coincided with the international financial crisis, giving renewed importance to the Washington-based institution. IMF emergency lending had plummeted from $66.4 billion in 2002 to just $58.7 million in 2006, when Paraguay and Albania were the only borrowers.

Relevant Again

Less than a year later, in September 2008, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. triggered the deepest international recession since World War II. Amid the turmoil, the IMF became relevant again. Emergency IMF loans soared to a record $91.7 billion last year from $1.1 billion in 2007.

For many in the political class in France, where police rarely parade suspects in front of TV cameras, pictures of the country’s most prominent international statesman led in handcuffs by police officers to a waiting car was hard to watch.

“I was distressed by the images I saw,” Socialist Party leader Aubry said. “They are profoundly humiliating.”

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who was among the first European leaders to endorse Strauss-Kahn for the IMF job, said last night: “To see Dominique Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs on television deeply saddened me. I have the feeling of being in a bad movie.”

‘Destroyed Image’

Sarkozy today asked lawmakers from his Union for a Popular Movement party to refrain from exploiting Strauss-Kahn’s woes.

“After what happened this weekend, we must show we are solid,” he said, asking his government and party members to “focus on people’s daily lives.”

The allegations in the case, meanwhile, have given even Strauss-Kahn’s biggest supporters pause.

According to the criminal complaint, Strauss-Kahn “engaged in oral sexual conduct and anal sexual conduct with another person by forcible compulsion.” He allegedly closed the door of the room to keep the woman from leaving, grabbed her breasts and tried to pull down her pantyhose, according to court papers.

Strauss-Kahn’s next court appearance was set for May 20.

“He was France’s most prominent person abroad, a powerful, policy making figure,” Gerard Grunberg, a professor at the Political Sciences Institute in Paris, said in a telephone interview. “His image is now destroyed. The books, the marketing will be of no help now.”

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