How the Mighty Have Fallen!

It is now more than a month since the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (“DSK”), head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and front runner in the polls for the presidential election in France. Rodney Crisp reports from France about the nation’s shock and disorientation, along with the extraordinary historical connections involved.

Nobody in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario. DSK was the champion of the socialist party, a brilliant economist with a solid record as finance minister and highly respected as head of the IMF. He was arrested just minutes before take-off on the tarmac of JFK airport in New York on an Air France flight to Paris.

He was taken off the plane by officers of the Port Authority of New York and handed over to Manhattan detectives who took him to the police station in Harlem and charged him with sexual assault, forcible confinement and attempted rape. The plaintiff was a chambermaid at the Sofitel hotel near Times Square where DSK had been staying.

The chambermaid, Ms Nafissatou Diallo, also known as Ophelia, is a thirty-two year old single mother of Guinean origin who has a fifteen-year-old daughter called Dana. They live in a small rented apartment in the Bronx. Ophelia had been working at the Sofitel for three years and had an excellent reputation both with her colleagues and the director of the hotel, Jorge Tito, who spoke very highly of her. Ophelia is known and appreciated within the African community in the neighbourhood where she lives. She is a practicing Muslim and lives and dresses conservatively and discretely.

A cleaning supervisor found Ophelia hiding in a hallway until DSK left his luxury suite at $3,000 a night. She had nausea and was trembling and traumatised. She spat on the walls and floor several times during questioning by her superiors and, at one point, went into a bathroom to try to vomit. Her saliva was later removed from the carpet and walls as evidence. She expressed concern that she might lose her job for having mistakenly entered the suite while it was occupied. She was taken by ambulance to the Roosevelt hospital for care and treatment.

Amnesty International estimates that 50,000 to 90,000 rapes are committed in France every year. Three French organisations affirm that 75,000 females are raped every year. That is an average of 200 rapes per day. The number of male rapes is less well known as most of them are never reported, even when they occur in prison.

Crimes in France are subject to a statute of limitations which means that they must be prosecuted within a certain time limit, otherwise prescription applies and it is too late. The prescription for rape is ten years. This is particularly important in the case of minors who wish to pursue their aggressor when they attain legal majority.

The clock is ticking on a young French journalist and novelist, Ms Tristane Banon, who revealed on a television show in February 2007 that DSK tried to rape her during an interview for a book she was writing in 2002 about major mistakes in the lives of political figures. As the show was not filmed live, the name of DSK was obliterated. The affair was hushed-up.

Ms Banon’s mother, Anne Mansouret, later declared she was responsible for dissuading her daughter from pressing charges against DSK because she was concerned about possible repercussions for his family. DSK’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette, is Banon’s godmother. Ms Mansouret also wished to protect the reputation of her daughter.

Banon’s lawyer, David Koubbi, indicated he will not make a criminal complaint against DSK while the American prosecution is going on because the two cases should be kept separate. He did not rule out making a complaint after that. Because of the statute of limitations this must be done in 2012 at the latest.

The news of DSK’s indictment has opened-up a whole bag of worms. Tongues have been loosened and stories are being told which nobody can verify. The only affair that has been clearly proven is the liaison he had with a female subordinate at the IMF, Ms Piroska Nagy. Ms Nagy is a Hungarian economist whose husband was the former Argentine central bank President, Mario Blejer. Ms Nagy left the IMF and DSK issued a public apology for the affair which the IMF board described as “regrettable and reflected a serious error of judgment on the part of the managing director”.

DSK celebrated his sixty-second birthday just three weeks prior to his arrest at the JFK airport. He was born in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly, home of some of the wealthiest people in France. His father was born to an Alsatian Jewish father and a Catholic mother from Lorraine. His mother came from a Sephardic Jewish family in Tunisia.

DSK’s political base is in Sarcelles, a town in the northern suburbs of Paris. It is a poor district, quite the opposite of Neuilly, where many “pieds-noirs” found refuge, mainly Jewish, during the Algerian war of independence. DSK was mayor and deputy mayor of Sarcelles until he resigned in 2007 to become Managing Director of the IMF.

He married his third wife, well-known French social and political journalist, Anne Sinclair, in 1991. She is heiress to part of the immense fortune of her maternal grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, a renowned art dealer who represented Pablo Picasso from 1918 to 1939, as well as Braque and Henri Matisse. Anne Sinclair is a member of the board of the Picasso museum in Paris. She donated one of Picasso’s paintings, Portrait de Madame Rosenberg et de sa fille, to the French State in 2008 to pay her mother’s death duties.

DSK is one of the Parisian socialist elite known as the gauche caviar (wealthy leftists). The news of his arrest provoked a typical French defence reaction familiar to chess players. The French intelligencia and gauche caviar immediately appeared on television denouncing a political conspiracy to eliminate DSK from the presidential election. They pointed out there was presumption of innocence.

Robert Badinter, the minister for justice under François Mitterand, and a personal friend of DSK and his wife, appeared to suggest that the corollary to the presumption of innocence of DSK was that there was presumption his accuser, Ophelia, was lying. This underscores the evident inappropriateness of the term “presumption of innocence”. The principle at law is that “the proof lies upon him who affirms not upon him who denies; since, by the nature of things, he who denies a fact cannot produce any proof” (Ei incumbit probatio, qui dicit, non qui negat; cum per rerum naturam factum negantis probatio nulla sit). Nothing is to be presumed. Something has to be proven.

It took a full week and many heated debates before anyone suggested that the victim may be Ophelia and not DSK. It took time to recover from the shock of the mise en scène”of DSK meekly facing his female judge in the courtroom before being escorted by two hefty policemen, his arms handcuffed behind his back, to the vehicle in which he was to be driven to prison. The copious French bashing that the American tabloids indulged in contributed to the impression in France that DSK was the designated victim. There was nobody else on the screen they could identify as such.

Apart from a few rare exceptions most of those who were eventually given the opportunity to express the opinion that the designated victim may be Ophelia and not DSK, happened to be women, some of whom were members of women’s rights organisations.

The affair has developed into a Shakespearian tragedy. The immense fortune generated by the artistic talents of Pablo Picasso, a member of the French communist party who painted Guernica in protest of the Nazi war bombings during the Spanish civil war, are financing the defence and buying the conditional freedom of the ex-managing director of the IMF to the tune of $ 5 million.

DSK, an eminent socialist, and his faithful wife, both of Jewish extraction, assisted by the best attorney money can buy, Benjamin Brafman, a practising Orthodox Jew, are throwing their combined forces in an all out battle against a poor, frail African migrant chambermaid who appears to be a devout Muslim fairly much alone in the world. The case is being prosecuted by the New York County District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, Jr., son of Cyrus Vance, Sr., the former Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs Minister) of President Jimmy Carter. Cy, as he is familiarly known, has a solid reputation for integrity, toughness and fairness. He has twenty-five years experience in the courts and has donated some of his time as a public defender, a criminal defence lawyer appointed by the court to represent people charged with a crime but unable to afford an attorney.

It has yet to be decided if the case will go to trial or not. The strategy of DSK and his lawyers remains confidential. Considering the circumstances as presented to the general public through the media, it is to be expected the dream team will set out to demonstrate that DSK is indeed the victim, as his “gauche caviar” Paris friends continue to assert. Who knows? A pocketful of dollars in the Bronx could miraculously uncover one or two compromising witnesses willing to testify against Ophelia.

Ironically, DSK and his lawyers may be assisted in promoting this claim by the highly aggressive attitude of Ophelia’s new Afro-American lawyer, Kenneth P. Thompson, who has forged a reputation for himself in obtaining significant financial awards for a number of clients on the grounds of social, racial and sexual discrimination.

It will certainly not take much to convince most observers here in France that DSK is indeed the victim.

Rodney Crisp is an international insurance and risk management consultant based in Paris. He was born in Cairns and grew up in Dalby on the Darling Downs where his family has been established for over a century and which he still considers as home.