Media the front line as sides in Strauss-Kahn case set for a dirty war

Sat, Jun 4, 2011, 01:00

AMERICA:Portraying the victim of rape as a promiscuous woman is the oldest trick in the world, writes LARA MARLOWE

ON MONDAY morning, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former director of the International Monetary Fund turned accused rapist, will be arraigned in a Manhattan courtroom on seven counts of sexual assault.

DSK, as he is known, is expected to plead not guilty to charges that could send him to prison for a quarter century.

The biggest question is whether he will say the words himself – his first public pronouncement since his arrest on May 14th – or whether his lawyers will enter the plea for him.

Hollywood could not have invented such a story: that a man who had money, power and privilege, poised to become president of France, would throw it all away because he could not control his sexual urges, because he had the arrogance to believe he would not get caught.

The 9.30am session could last as little as five minutes, but journalists will begin queuing outside from 6am in hopes of entering the court. A study by the French Kantar Media institute reported that during the first 10 days of the scandal, DSK appeared on the front pages of 150,000 newspapers around the world.

In a letter sent to New York’s district attorney dated May 25th, DSK’s attorney William Taylor III complained that “our client’s right to a fair trial is being compromised by the public disclosure of prejudicial material”.

Police sources told newspaper reporters that DSK’s semen was found on the collar of a hotel maid’s uniform.

Another sentence in Taylor’s three-page letter impugned the character of Naffisatou Diallo (32), the widowed Muslim chambermaid from Guinea who accuses DSK of assaulting her. “Were we intent on improperly feeding the media frenzy, we could now release substantial information that in our view would seriously undermine the quality of this prosecution, and also gravely undermine the credibility of the complainant in this case,” Taylor wrote.

Portraying the victim of rape as a promiscuous woman who invited attack is the oldest trick in the world. In theory, a New York statute known as a “rape-shield law” ought to protect Diallo. But both sides in this dirty war of words are likely to deliver their lowest blows through media leaks rather than in the courtroom.

“Both Strauss-Kahn and Diallo have become pariahs,” says Rémi Sulmont, US correspondent for RTL French radio. “In February, DSK and his wife Anne Sinclair were the guests of honour at a gala for 1,000 people at the Lycée Francais in New York. Today, no one there will talk about them. French politicians aren’t likely to visit him because they don’t want to be photographed outside his building.”

Sulmont has spent time with the Guinean community in the Bronx, where Diallo lived until media attention forced her into hiding. The community is divided into Malinké and Peul ethnic groups; Diallo is of the latter. “Most of the Malinkés reproach her for having spoken. She’s a widow, and they say she’ll never find another husband,” says Sulmont. “They believe a story in the New York Post – denied by her lawyer – that she lived in housing reserved for people infected with Aids,” he continues.

DSK’s money is a huge advantage. His wife Anne Sinclair inherited millions from her grandfather, who was Picasso’s art dealer. Sinclair posted $6 million in bail and bond, and is renting a four-bedroom Manhattan townhouse, complete with roof terrace, cinema and jacuzzi, for $50,000 a month for her house-bound husband. Fees for lawyers, guards, private investigators and the public relations firm that DSK has retained to restore his reputation will cost millions more.

But he can’t buy the jury.

The case has inspired much commentary on cultural differences between the US and France regarding sex and privacy. In the immediate aftermath of DSK’s arrest, an opinion poll showed that 57 per cent of French respondents believed he was the victim of a plot, though the idea that President Nicolas Sarkozy had organised the placing of an attractive maid in the Times Square Sofitel with the intention of entrapping DSK beggars belief. As recently as May 31st, Reuters reported that DSK was marginally more popular than Sarkozy.

Quotes by high-profile, male, French defenders of DSK are quoted by the US press as proof of French crassness. Bernard Henri-Lévy cast doubt on Diallo’s story, saying luxury hotels send “cleaning brigades” of at least two maids into rooms. Jean-Francois Kahn spoke of mere troussage de domestique – the lifting of a servant’s skirt – common among aristocrats of the Ancien Régime. Jack Lang couldn’t understand why DSK was initially refused bail, since “no one was killed”.

If DSK is Bluebeard, French finance minister Christine Lagarde is Snow White. It helps her image that she attended high school in Washington DC and spent two decades as a high-powered lawyer in Chicago. She now looks likely to succeed DSK at the IMF, where she may restore France’s lost honour.