French voters have shrugged at politicians’ infidelities for decades but now some wonder if their tolerance has allowed criminal acts by one of the country’s best-known public figures to go unpunished.
Questions are being raised about what some call an “omerta” – or unofficial law of silence – in France about sexual misconduct.
The lawyer for a 31-year-old novelist, Tristane Banon, said yesterday that she was likely to file a criminal complaint in coming days accusing Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her nine years ago.
Ms Banon first made a public accusation against Strauss-Kahn in a 2007 French television interview, saying he wrenched open her bra and tried to unbutton her jeans during an attempt to rape her.
Her lawyer said that she had been dissuaded from filing charges by her mother, a member of a regional council who belongs to Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist party. Lawyer David Koubbi said she now “knows she’ll be taken seriously.”
Strauss-Kahn, who is married with four children, has long had a reputation for making sexual approaches to other women that he has done little to dispel. Three years ago, he found himself clinging to his IMF job after its board chastised him for having an affair with a married subordinate.
In response to the accusations, Strauss-Kahn has said only that he has a passion for women, and made vague promises to behave better. French voters and pundits met the tales of straying with knowing winks.
“We are not in an Anglo-Saxon country, and stories of cheating and affairs or adultery make us smile,” said Jerome Fourquet, a pollster with the IFOP agency. “But here the logic is different. It’s about a crime, and if it’s proven to be true – a rape attempt – this is different.”
An outspoken member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party alleged that Strauss-Kahn had engaged in other misconduct at the hotel where the alleged attack took place.
“It’s not the first time that DSK is involved in this kind of actions at the Sofitel,” Michel Debre said. “That’s where he always stayed. It happened several times and for several years.”
“Everyone knew it in the hotel,” he added.
He offered no evidence to back up his claims, which Sofitel called “baseless and defamatory.”
The shock has been especially brutal for France’s Socialists, a party plagued by dissent in recent years that increasingly had seemed to gel around the possibility that Strauss-Kahn could return them to power.
Strauss-Kahn has led the polls for months as the most favoured man to win the 2012 presidential race, while Mr Sarkozy’s popularity has sagged for months. Sarkozy allies said he had advised them to lay low and show caution amid the uproar.
As an economist and former finance minister, Strauss-Kahn was noted for his awareness on crucial home finance issues and both gravitas and poise – at least publicly.
Strauss-Kahn’s supporters on the French left expressed shock, or said the allegations did not resemble the man they knew. They said they were reserving judgment and criticised the US media spectacle around the case.
Socialist party boss Martine Aubry said she was “stunned” over TV images of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs. In France, suspects are usually shielded from view in such circumstances.
“His close friends cannot believe that he is guilty,” said fellow Socialist Jean-Christophe Cambadelis. “We’re hoping that the trauma, in one form or another, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn we hope, will be surmounted.”
Socialist party leaders insisted their internal electoral calendar would not change: its candidates have until early summer to make their bids known before a nominating convention in the fall.
French media have overlooked the infidelities of politicians for years: Many journalists are said to have known President Francois Mitterrand had a daughter out of wedlock, but kept quiet because it was seen as private.
On his blog, regional Socialist official Gilles Savary wrote that France simply has a different take on sexual free-wheeling, insisting it as a private matter - as long as it’s not immodest, and among consulting adults.
“To tell the truth, everybody knows Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine, who sets himself apart from many others with a propensity not to hide it,” wrote Mr Savary, a regional councillor near south-western Bordeaux.
“In puritanical America, seeped with a rigorous Protestantism, monetary affairs are tolerated far more than pleasures of the flesh.”
On Paris streets, some suggested the personal demons of a man of considerable international power and import could have gotten the better of him - overpowering even his desire to one day become French president.
At the noted La Rotonde cafe on Paris’ Left Bank, psychiatrist Sylvie Etienne said she had been planning on voting for Strauss-Kahn if he were to run next year – but knew his sexual appetites were “a danger for him.”
“It’s very sad because he’s an intelligent man,” she said. “I think his behaviour is pathological. He can’t control his sexual impulses. Without that you can’t assume a post you (may) be destined for.”