IMF Chief's Arrest A 'Thunderclap' In French Politics

May 16, 2011
Originally published on May 16, 2011 8:19 pm

France is reeling from the news that one of its most revered politicians and economists, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has been accused of attacking a chamber maid as she was cleaning his New York City hotel room.

On Monday morning, French news channels showed footage of a grim-faced Strauss-Kahn — who is the head of the International Monetary Fund and was expected to announce his candidacy for president soon — being led out of a Harlem police station in handcuffs.

Plucked off of a plane that was ready to depart New York for Paris on Saturday, Strauss-Kahn has spent the past two days in police custody.

The events have shaken the French political world.

"The news from New York has been like a thunderclap. And I, like everyone else, am completely stupefied," said Martine Aubry, the secretary-general of the French Socialist Party. "I ask you all to wait for the facts, respect the presumption of innocence and, above all, keep your decency."

Strauss-Kahn, 62, who police say was identified by the 32-year-old maid from a lineup, denies all the charges against him. Before the incident, France was abuzz with anticipation over the political aspirations of DSK, as he is fondly called.

A recent TV documentary gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at his glamorous life as IMF chief, and many Socialists viewed him as their savior after years in the wilderness — the party hasn't won a presidential election since Francois Mitterrand was in power in the 1980s.

Recent polls showed Strauss-Kahn, a centrist, beating both President Nicolas Sarkozy and the new star of the far right, Marine Le Pen. But what has happened affects more than French politics, says news analyst Frederic Delpech.

"It's also a disaster for France, because our image abroad is seriously tarnished," Delpech says. "And it's a blow to the IMF, too, which is trying to deal with the Greek debt crisis right now."

Strauss-Kahn was to have met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday to talk about Greece, and German officials are said to be extremely worried about the fate of the IMF and the euro in the wake of the scandal.

Appointed by Sarkozy to head the IMF in 2007, Strauss-Kahn has been applauded for playing a key role in the European bailout plans and in weathering the storm of the world financial crisis. He had a near-perfect record.

But Strauss-Kahn, who is married with four children, has a well-known reputation in France as a womanizer. In October 2008, Strauss-Kahn apologized for "an error of judgment" when he was caught having an affair with a female IMF subordinate. An inquiry cleared him of abuse of power. He was later asked about the incident in an interview.

"I think private life should remain private, and if that is to be respected, one shouldn't discuss it. I have no comment," Strauss-Kahn said.

Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front party, minced no words in her reaction to events.

"For years there have been doubts about his repeated bad behavior toward women," Le Pen said. "But knowing about this pathology, some still chose to put him in a position of responsibility. I hold him completely responsible for France's exploding image abroad."

Paris was buzzing with the news on Monday morning. Brigitte Redier was buying a stack of newspapers, with Strauss-Kahn on the front page of all of them.

"He was the ideal candidate, and I wanted him as our next president," she said. "It's unimaginable that someone so brilliant would do something like that. It's like a bad American movie or something."

Redier thinks Strauss-Kahn may have been framed, saying she wouldn't put it past his political opponents. For now she says she doesn't believe the allegations against him and, like most French people, is waiting to hear from Strauss-Kahn himself.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Unidentified Person: (French language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: This morning, French news channels showed footage of a grim-faced Strauss-Kahn being led out of a Harlem police station in handcuffs. Plucked off of a plane that was ready to depart New York for Paris Saturday, Strauss-Kahn has spent the last two days in police custody. The events have shaken the French political world just a year before the presidential election. Martine Aubrey is secretary general of the French Socialist Party.

MARTINE AUBREY: (Through translator) The news from New York has been like a thunderclap. And I, like everyone else, am completely stupefied. I ask you all to wait for the facts, respect the presumption of innocence, and above all keep your decency.

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man: (French language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV DOCUMENTARY)

BEARDSLEY: But what's happened affects more than French politics, says news analyst Frederic Delpeche.

FREDERIC DELPECHE: (Through translator) It's also a disaster for France, because our image abroad is seriously tarnished. And it's a blow to the IMF too, which is trying to deal with the Greek debt crisis right now.

BEARDSLEY: But Strauss-Kahn, who is married with four children, has a well-known reputation in France as a womanizer. In October 2008 he apologized for an error of judgment when he was caught having an affair with an IMF subordinate. An inquiry cleared him of abuse of power. DSK was asked about the incident in an interview.

DOMINIQUE STRAUSS: (Through translator) I think private life should remain private. And if that is to be respected, one shouldn't discuss it. I have no comment.

BEARDSLEY: Marine Le Pen, president of the far right National Front Party, minced no words in her reaction to events.

MARINE LE PEN: (Through translator) For years there have been doubts about his repeated bad behavior towards women. But knowing about this pathology, some still chose to put him in a position of responsibility. I hold him completely responsible for France's exploding image abroad.

BEARDSLEY: This morning, Paris was buzzing with the news. Brigitte Redier is buying a stack of newspapers. DSK is on the front page of all of them.

BRIGITTE REDIER: (Through translator) He was the ideal candidate and I wanted him as our next president. It is unimaginable that someone so brilliant could do something like that. It's like a bad American movie or something.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.