Sex and French politics go together like croissants and coffee. But the latest scandal, an alleged sexual assault against a New York hotel maid by IMF chief and French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, leaves a far nastier taste.

It’s an incident likely to destroy the career of the man many expected to be France’s next president.

A 32-year-old chamber maid had entered Strauss-Kahn’s hotel room to clean it when Strauss-Kahn allegedly emerged naked from the bathroom and forced her to perform oral sex on him. He then allegedly locked her in the hotel room and fled to the airport, leaving behind personal items including a mobile phone. Strauss-Kahn had already boarded a Paris-bound Air France plane at JFK Airport when he was apprehended by New York police. Just hours ago he was picked out of a police line-up by the accuser.

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Strauss-Kahn, known in the French press as DSK, was widely expected to announce his run as a presidential nominee for the French Socialist Party in June, challenging embattled president Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election. As a “close friend” lamented to The Daily Beast‘s Christopher Dicker: “It looks like his career at the IMF and his candidacy are, as you say, toast.”

His lawyer Benjamin Braffman declared his client will plead not guilty to the sexual assault charges, which include allegations of a “criminal sexual act, attempted rape and an unlawful imprisonment”. Braffman has a long list of celebrity clients he’s known for getting off the hook, including rappers Jay Z and P Diddy, but as French blog New York Coste notes, they are usually a lot rougher than the high-powered Strauss-Kahn. He faces 25 years imprisonment if found guilty and questions are being raised if and when Strauss-Kahn will be allowed to return to Europe.

It’s not the first time Strauss-Kahn’s sexual relations have hit the headlines and sent political gossips whispering. Back in 2008 he had a consensual affair with an economist who was his subordinate. An investigation cleared him of any abuse of power. News of the assault against the New York maid resulted in further allegations in France overnight. Back in 2002, Strauss-Kahn allegedly attacked the daughter of a Socialist Party official conducting an interview with him, forcing her to fight him off against fear of rape. The woman, Tristane Banon, spoke publicly about the incident — describing Strauss-Kahan as a “rutting chimpanzee” — a few years ago, but had refused to name Strauss-Kahn until last night.

Despite his marriage to well-known French journalist and television personality Anne Sinclair — who says she is standing by her man and that he’s innocent — Strauss-Kahn has a reputation as a playboy. As Jacques Savary from the French Socialist Party wrote on his blog — which appeared translated in the New Yorker:

“To tell the truth, everybody knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine; what distinguishes him from plenty of others is his propensity not to hide it. In Puritan American, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism, they tolerate infinitely better the sins of money than the pleasures of the flesh. It would be easy to trap a personality so unresistant to feminine attractions as D.S.K.”

Unlikely conspiracy theories have been running that Sarkozy and his party are behind the scandal. One of the first people to tweet the news of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest was Jonathan Pinet, a masters student and supporter of UMP, Sarkozy’s political party. Pinet got crucial information wrong in the original tweet announcing the arrest, saying Strauss-Lahn was apprehended at the hotel, rather than at JFK. “While it is possible that the inaccuracy of the information that Pinet published on Twitter was an innocent error, many are wondering if it points to a conspiracy,” suggests Roxanne Varza at Tech Crunch.

An anonymous French law enforcement source told The Daily Beast that while Strauss-Kahn may “have an issue with his penis, he never forces anybody. He is much more romantic than that. So this whole aspect needs to be given a lot of attention.”

Le Monde‘s website is calling the affair “a thunder bolt” for French politics. New York’s Daily News led the charge after allegations of assault against one of its own…

The French papers weren’t quite as tabloid…

There’s a long list of political figures whose careers have been ruined by affairs, prostitutes and sexual harassment, but few who have been involved in criminal sexual assault cases of this magnitude, say Caren Bohan and Tabassum Zakaria of Reuters. Adultery is one thing for French voters, rape is something else.

But where to now for France? Sarkozy appears doomed and Strauss-Kahn was largely seen as the white knight of the Socialist Party, who despite the sexual escapades was seen as a sensible, rational leader.

Now, writes Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, “the great risk in the French scene is the rise of Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the head of the National Front. Marine Le Pen is far more media-pleasing (and intelligent) than her father was, as much as she shares his views, and she has not been cautious in offering reporters an immediate response to the D.S.K. affair:

‘All of Paris, journalistic Paris, political Paris, has been vibrating for months about the slightly pathological view M. Straus Kahm seems to hold about women. I have myself been something of a victim in a duel with him where he has been extremely inappropriate in his attitude.'”

Despite the media press, Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty. The same won’t likely be said for his career.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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