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The arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn sent shock waves through France because opinion polls showed him as the likely winner of next year’s presidential election there. Kojo probes how sexual assault charges in New York will impact politics in Paris.
- David Clark Deputy Bureau Chief, Agence France-Press, Paris
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how government brutality further complicates Syria's relationship with, well, everything in that part of the world. But first, in a scene worthy of a movie plot, the head of the International Monetary Fund was whisked off a plane in New York just moments before takeoff on Saturday and arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile the arrest created uncertainty about the IMF's efforts to stave off debt crisis in Europe it also shocked the political establishment in France, where opinion polls shows Dominique Strauss-Kahn beating Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election if he were to run. News accounts say Strauss-Kahn's extramarital affairs have long been considered an open secret in a nation more tolerant on that front than the United States or Britain. But the charges of sexual assault are a different order of magnitude. And observers say they will end his career as a leader of France's Socialist Party.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us by telephone from Paris to discuss and its effect in politics in France is David Clark, deputy bureau chief with Agence France-Press. David Clark, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID CLARKHello.
NNAMDIDominique Strauss-Kahn is a leading member of the Socialist Party in France and has been described as a charismatic political figure. What is his reputation there and how do you explain his popularity as a politician?
CLARKWell, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn you have to look at him having two reputations. In fact, in France we don't have the same freedom of information laws as you do in the United States and there are very strict privacy laws and also it's a general cultural reluctance to probe the private lives of politicians.
CLARKSo on the one level he's a popular Socialist politician who was a successful finance minister. Who's perceived as successful as the head of the IMF, obviously that's come to an abrupt halt. And therefore was a front-runner in next year's presidential election.
CLARKBut within media and political circles in Paris it's an open secret that his relationship with women has been very difficult over the years and it was fair to say that people here are shocked by the extent and suddenness of this particular allegation but not particularly surprised. There would be an allegation of a sexual and aggressive nature that would bring him down.
NNAMDII can't help observing that every male political or intellectual leader we talk about from France is described as charismatic. Is that an exaggeration we're talking about Dominique Strauss-Kahn or is it correct?
CLARKHe is seen that way. And unfortunately for the Socialist Party, few people would call his rivals for the Socialist Party nomination charismatic. He's likely to be replaced by Franasois Hollande, the former general secretary of the Socialist Party, who's respected within the movement, but who doesn't have this reputation as being a great mobilizer as Franasois Hollande does. And obviously, he's going to have to go up against Nicolas Sarkozy, who's had a lot of trouble himself in the opinion polls, but whom, whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a national leader, is certainly seen as a great campaigner.
NNAMDIThe media here in the U.S. are reporting that some people are now talking about previous incidents of predatory behavior by Mr. Strauss-Kahn. In addition to extramarital affairs, how do the French view these things and when does this behavior become a political liability?
CLARKIt becomes a political liability a lot later than it would in the United States or even in my homeland, in Britain. There's a very great tolerance towards extramarital affairs, sexual hypocrisy and flirtatious behavior on the behalf of the politicians. The previous president before Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac, had a string of affairs in and out of office. His own wife says that the girls are running after him. He was an extremely successful seducer. His chauffeur said that his nickname was Mr. Three Minutes, Including the Shower.
CLARKAnd that he would often have multiple affairs ongoing at the same time with staff and with people on the outside, including several journalists. It's extremely common, not to say banal, for French politicians, even at the highest level, to comport themselves in a manner which would be seen as an embarrassment in an Anglo-Saxon culture. On the other hand, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, if these allegations are proved true, has certainly crossed the line even by French standards because this is apparently quite a violent assault. It's not a seduction by any means, if the allegations against him are true.
CLARKIt appears that he has forced himself upon someone and not someone who is in a good position to defend herself, obviously a low-paid hotel employee. Now, there have been, and we have to be careful what we say (unintelligible) , but there have been, that I have heard as a journalist based in Paris, similar allegations about his behavior going back for a long time.
CLARKObviously, some of these are not yet subject to legal proceedings, but it's no surprise to me, as a political journalist based in Paris, that this is the kind of affair he would be wrapped in. But it's a complete shock, I think, to many people in the French elector. It's because the press here has been very careful about reporting such allegations.
NNAMDIYes, here in the United States we talk about the scuttlebutt, scuttlebutt being the term that is used for information that is readily exchanged among journalists but not making it out into the public's sphere.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Clark. He's deputy bureau chief with Agence France-Press in Paris. He's joining us by telephone from Paris. If you'd like to join the conversation you can call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking about the arrest of the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
NNAMDIGo back a little bit to French politics for me, please, David, what does this arrest mean for the French elections next year? who now is likely to be the Socialist Party candidate and how does this help or hurt Mr. Sarkozy's chances of winning re-election?
CLARKIn the immediate short-term, I suppose you could say it seems like it helps President Sarkozy a lot. All of the opinion polls conducted in the last six months show that were he the candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, were he the opposition candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn would defeat President Sarkozy, who not therefore get a second term, by quite a margin actually in some of the polls because President Sarkozy's very low approval ratings at the moment.
CLARKOn the other hand, the Socialist Party hasn't yet chosen its candidate. The primaries haven't started and privately, although they are bit shaken by what's happened, privately Socialist Party people are admitting to us that at least they're glad it came out before the campaign proper, before even their own primaries.
CLARKThey can now choose a candidate who won't have this kind of thing hanging over them. If this has broken in a few months time, he may already have been elected as their flag bearer. So they do have a few months now to regroup before the campaign itself and it has to be said that political journalists here were, while amazed by his poll numbers, were skeptical about the chances of him going through an entire campaign given the weight of the accusations trailing in his wake.
CLARKPrevious French elections campaigns maybe everything would've stayed secret, but even in France now where they have Twitter, we have Facebook, we have various blogs which don't obey the traditional rules of politeness and privacy that the mainstream French press does and it seemed to me, unlikely that he would withstand an entire electoral cycle without some kind of scandal of breaking.
NNAMDIIndeed, it was my understanding...
CLARKThat's because of his reputation.
NNAMDI...it was my understanding that even before this arrest Mr. Sarkozy's team was gathering information to discredit Mr. Strauss-Kahn if he decided to run for president. So it underscores your point that there's a likelihood that this pattern of behavior would have come out anyway. But it's also led some people to think that there is a conspiracy of some kind in which Mr. Strauss-Kahn somehow got caught up. Others say if it were, he wouldn't have run.
CLARKYes, I don't personally give much credence to the conspiracy theories. There's a number of reasons for that. I think if the right wing here or people close to Mr. Sarkozy wanted to smear Dominique Strauss-Kahn, they certainly would've waited 'til closer to the election to do so. It makes little sense to do so before he's even the official candidate.
CLARKBut also, as it happened aboard and whereas Mr. Sarkozy's influence is presumably broad, I don't think he controls who the NYPD investigates. And in the case of this alleged victim, she's not someone who's involved in any way in French politics and I doubt she even knew the name of the person whose room she was cleaning on Saturday morning.
CLARKThe conspiracies themselves don't hold much water, but the speed with which they've begun to spread on social networking sites and so forth is a sign, partly, I think, of the world we live in. Obviously in the United States recently you've heard a lot of very bizarre conspiracy theories posted against people from left and right and it's the same in France.
CLARKThat when these things happen people do think about who would it benefit. But I think if you give them more than a few minutes thought any conspiracy in this case doesn't hold water...
NNAMDIIf in the final...
CLARK(unintelligible) for anybody.
NNAMDI...if in the final analysis these allegations turned out to be horribly misplaced, is there any chance at all that Mr. Strauss-Kahn can resume his political career?
CLARKIf this particular allegation turns out to be horribly misplaced and that is proven fairly soon, then I suppose, you know, long shot he could rebound and then say he's a victim of a plot and of judicial overreach and that might even play into his hand.
CLARKBut unfortunately, now that the story -- unfortunately for him, now that the story has broken in the U.S. courts, obviously in a very public place, he's been filmed in the courtroom, he's been seen handcuffed. It's difficult to exaggerate how much of a shocker it is to French people where even ordinary non-famous minor perps, you're not allowed to photograph people in handcuffs here until they've been convicted in the court of law.
CLARKWe do not film inside courthouses here. The amount of information that comes out of a court before the end of it is extremely limited. So for someone of Strauss-Kahn's stature to be on the front pages in handcuffs is an extraordinary in France. That will leave a mark whatever happens in this case.
CLARKBut also now that he's become publicly accused then other things that have been following him over the years are beginning to surface and already one woman has said here in France today that she intends now to make a formal complaint to allege a very similar sexual assault.
CLARKIt happened nine years ago in 2002, which she decided at the time that she wasn't going to make the complaint against him because she felt in France that she couldn’t get a fair hearing and that she was under a lot of pressure from people close to him not to make a complaint.
CLARKNow, that the U.S. case is going ahead already at least one French woman's made a complaint and, again, without wanting to prejudice the ongoing proceedings and again insisting, I suppose, on the presumption of innocence in this particular case, I would not personally be surprised if more women were to come forward in the United States and in France.
NNAMDIAnd one final, one final comment comes from Willie in Colombia, Md. Willie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLIEThanks for taking my call. The hotel in which Mr. Strauss-Kahn was living, I have lived there before. It is a French-owned hotel and so it is very easy for things to be planted.
NNAMDIThings like what to be planted?
WILLIEWell, some people say that, and they don't believe in conspiracy theory, and if you have a French-owned hotel with French maids working there, it is easy to lead Mr. Kahn something having known his so-called record of previous behavior.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have David Clark respond to that?
CLARKWell, I'm sure the details of the allegation will come through in the court case in due time. Obviously, hotels are all owned by someone and in this case, The Sofitel New York is owned by the Accor Group, which is one of the biggest French hotel groups. I can't think of any motivation for the Accor Group to have framed Mr. Strauss-Kahn.
CLARKThey'd have to continue to work in the French business environment whoever wins the next election. And in any case, I suppose, as far as the court case is concerned, if temptation was thrown in his way, then that's obviously cynical, but he seized upon that temptation, if that's what it turns out happened. I understand the NYPD is working on the basis of DNA evidence and not just on the claims of the maid, who was not, as it happens, French, but a Guinean immigrant to the United States.
NNAMDIWilly, thank you very much for your call. David Clark, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIDavid Clark is deputy bureau chief of Agence France-Press in Paris. He joined us by telephone. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, a complicated situation in Syria made even more complicated in the wake of government brutality against protestors. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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