Unverified “revelations” from anonymous sources about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s New York accuser have led to a torrent of self-recriminations from American commentators. Since, among other reasons, the New York Times reported that the accuser invoked Strauss-Kahn’s wealth during a recorded conversation in a Fulani dialect that she had with an African immigrant in a detention facility, the scales have apparently fallen from many Americans’ eyes. The French critics of America’s bad judicial manners had been proven correct, after all: In our “rush to judgment,” we had let our “prejudices” get the best of us and sullied the reputation of an innocent man whose only crime was to be powerful — and French.
But the problem is that it is not prejudice that created — and indeed still creates — the strongest presumption in favor of the Sofitel maid’s accusations against Strauss-Kahn, but rather familiarity. Those who rushed to judgment the most quickly when Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York were not American yahoos eager to see a French big-wig they’d never before heard of get his comeuppance, but rather those French insiders who best know Strauss-Kahn and his reputation.
Both rumors and explicit accusations concerning sexual predation and harassment on the part of Strauss-Kahn have been circulating among France’s political and media elite for years now. If they had not already given rise to scandal, then this is only thanks to the law of silence that binds the members of this exclusive caste not to rat on their own. Indeed, already in 2007, when French president Nicolas Sarkozy put forward Strauss-Kahn’s name to head the IMF, Jean Quatremer of the French left-wing daily Libération, in effect, predicted the scandal that would become “L’Affaire DSK.” Writing about the nomination on his Coulisses de Bruxelles blog, Quatremer observed:
The only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relations with women. Overly insistent, he often comes close to harassment. The fault is well-known to members of the media, but nobody talks about it. (We are in France [after all].) Now, the IMF is an international institution where Anglo-Saxon morals apply. One inappropriate gesture, one overly precise allusion, and it will be a media frenzy.
In October 2008, less than a year after Strauss-Kahn became IMF chief, it appeared that Quatremer’s prediction might already be coming true. At the time, it was revealed that the organization was conducting an internal investigation of Strauss-Kahn on suspicions of harassment and abuse of power in connection with a sexual liaison with a subordinate. The episode occurred the previous January, i.e., just two months after Strauss-Kahn assumed the post. “Astonishing Strauss-Kahn,” Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette wrote in the French weekly Le Point when the news broke:
His whole career, he has never ceased to flirt with the red line. His escapades are legendary, but — as French tradition demands — there has been almost no mention of them in the press. His taste for the weaker sex has led him to take numerous risks. He has nearly been charged with sexual harassment many times.
In the same vein, after Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York, the French media-criticism website Arrêt sur images accused the French press of “having always kept quiet about the consistently similar rumors of sexual harassment of which Strauss-Kahn has been the object for many years.”
During a talk show on public-television station France 3, the site’s founder, Daniel Schneidermann, said that he personally knew two women who had met Strauss-Kahn for strictly professional reasons and been “victims” of persistent and unwanted advances on his part. Schneidermann emphasized that as a media critic, not a reporter, he does not figure among the “first circle of initiates.” His implication was that the journalists who are in direct contact with the French political scene must know more about the matter than he does.
Last week, just days after the supposed “revelations” concerning Strauss-Kahn’s New York accuser, the French author Tristane Banon filed attempted-rape charges against Strauss-Kahn in Paris. The charges stem from an incident that occurred in February 2003. Banon, then an aspiring 23-year-old journalist, met Strauss-Kahn in what she has described as a “nearly empty” Parisian apartment to interview him for a book she was preparing. Ironically enough, the subject of the book was the “biggest mistakes” of well-known public figures. On Banon’s account, the two ended up struggling on the floor, with Banon kicking Strauss-Kahn in order to get away from him.
Banon’s decision to file charges now, after years of hesitation, has given new life to rumors that Strauss-Kahn is the target of a right-wing conspiracy to take him down before the upcoming French presidential elections in 2012. Prior to the Sofitel incident, Strauss-Kahn was the favorite to win the Socialist party’s nomination for the presidency.
The notion that Banon is somehow part of such a conspiracy has even made it into the American debate — courtesy of the New York Times, of course. In an article on Banon’s complaint against Strauss-Kahn, the Times calls attention to the supposedly suspicious fact that she has written for Atlantico.fr, which the Times describes as a “pro-Sarkozy Web site.” The description is about as precise and informative as describing, say, Politico.com as a “pro-Obama Web site.” Atlantico is a recently launched news and commentary site that positions itself somewhat to the right of the generic leftism that is otherwise the default setting in the French media.
But what is most telling about the French accusations against Strauss-Kahn is that they come for the most part precisely from members of his own socialist political family. Tristane Banon is in fact a case in point. Banon’s mother, Anne Mansouret, is a local Socialist-party official in Normandy. Mansouret was even briefly a candidate for the party’s presidential nomination: an experience that she has chronicled on the leftish French website Rue89. On July 1, she abandoned her candidacy, noting that her campaign had come to be overwhelmed by the controversy surrounding Strauss-Kahn and Banon.
Mansouret has admitted to dissuading her daughter from bringing charges against Strauss-Kahn in 2003 in the immediate aftermath of the alleged assault. She says that she now regrets having done so. While Banon kept a low profile following Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York, it was in fact Mansouret who almost immediately came forward to accuse Strauss-Kahn of having attacked her daughter. She has repeated the charge in numerous interviews in major French media outlets.
Mansouret told the French website Mediapart that she met with Strauss-Kahn in a Parisian bistro shortly after the incident, in order to clear the air. She says that Strauss-Kahn seemed “genuinely sorry,” if albeit “unconscious” about the seriousness of what he had done. “Listen, I don’t know what came over me,” Strauss-Kahn is supposed to have told her, “I lost control. I invited her [Banon] because it seemed to me that she was okay with it [qu’elle était d’accord], and then I lost control.” (In French, Strauss-Kahn is supposed to have said, “j’ai pété un cable”: literally, “I popped a cable.”) In her interview with Mediapart, Mansouret describes Strauss-Kahn as a “sex maniac” and a “cornerer” (coinceur), i.e. someone who likes to corner women in elevators.
A Socialist member of the French National Assembly, Aurelie Filippetti, apparently knows what Mansouret is talking about. Referring to her own experience with Strauss-Kahn and, more specifically, to an episode that is rumored to have occurred in 2006, Filippetti told that Swiss daily Le Temps that, ever since, “I have made sure never to find myself alone with him in a closed space.”
Banon has said that after Strauss-Kahn’s alleged assault, she consulted with a lawyer in Paris who had a stack of files on him. The Paris-based lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat has acknowledged that he was the lawyer with whom Banon consulted and also that he has been made aware of similar cases. Pierrat is himself an elected Socialist-party official in Paris’s 6th Arrondissement.
Banon does not have ties only to Strauss-Kahn’s political “family,” but also indeed to his family in the strict sense. She is the goddaughter of Strauss-Kahn’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette, and was a friend of Strauss-Kahn’s daughter by the same marriage, Camille. In a recent interview with the weekly L’Express, Banon said that she reminded Strauss-Kahn of her friendship with Camille as she struggled to get away from him in the empty apartment in 2003. “I’m a friend of Camille, I’m the same age,” she is supposed to have pleaded. To this, Strauss-Kahn is supposed to have replied, “What does Camille have to do with it?”
Banon’s own father, incidentally, is none other than Gabriel Banon: a French-Moroccan businessman who after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords served for several years as an economic adviser to Yasser Arafat. According to a report in Libération, Gabriel Banon abandoned mother and child “at the moment of birth.” Tristane Banon has told L’Express that she has never known her father and does not even know if he is still alive.
Another daughter of Gabriel Banon — and hence a half-sister of Tristane — appears to have been married to Pierre Lellouche, a prominent member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and the current holder of a sub-ministerial position in the French government. This further bizarre coincidence will undoubtedly provide grist for the mill of the “right-wing conspiracy” theory.
For the adherents of this conspiracy theory, the timing of Banon’s complaint — so soon after the supposedly crucial “revelations” in the New York case — appears suspicious. In fact, both Banon and her lawyer, David Koubbi, have explained that they had decided to move forward with the complaint in mid-June.
Moreover, Tristane Banon has, in effect, been talking about the alleged attack to anyone who would listen from almost the day it occurred. It is only the law of silence imposed and respected by others — first and foremost, the members of the French media — that has prevented the story from being known to a wide public earlier.
The first person in whom Banon confided was her mother, Anne Mansouret, who says that she informed leading Socialist-party officials, including the former French prime minister Laurent Fabius and the then-chair of the Socialist party, François Hollande. Hollande has acknowledged that he was informed about the situation, but he denies that he encouraged Banon to press charges, as Banon has claimed. In the absence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Hollande is the current favorite to win the Socialist party’s presidential nomination.
Banon also told her editor, Véronique de Bure, and indeed she went ahead and wrote a chapter about her meeting with Strauss-Kahn for her book Erreurs Avouées (Admitted Mistakes), which was published in November 2003. Prior to publication, however, the chapter was removed by the publisher. Longtime Strauss-Kahn adviser Ramzi Khiroun has admitted that he contacted the publisher and asked for the chapter’s removal.
The suppressed chapter was recently published by L’Express. It contains no explicit mention of a sexual assault, but several coy allusions to Banon’s discomfort in Strauss-Kahn’s presence and a sexual agenda on his part. Banon has told L’Express that since she had decided at the time not to file charges, she decided not to write about the assault either. Véronique de Bure has confirmed that she and Banon discussed the alleged assault, but says that the publishing house would not have allowed such a “bombshell” to be included in the book.
Banon, however, wrote about the attack in fictionalized form in her 2006 novel Trapéziste (Trapeze Artist). One year later, she went public with her accusations and she named her alleged attacker — or at least she tried to do so. Appearing on the French television talk show 93, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Banon provided a detailed account of the alleged assault in terms very similar to those to be found in Trapéziste. “It’s true, one knows that he is obsessed with the babes [les gonzesses],” host Thierry Ardisson knowingly interjected when Banon first brought up Strauss-Kahn’s name. Banon said that after managing to get away from Strauss-Kahn and leave the building, she immediately received a text message from him asking, “So, do I scare you?”
But when the program was broadcast in February 2007, Strauss-Kahn’s name was beeped out by the producers. Even though it was clear that Banon was referring to a prominent politician, the only French media to follow up on the question of his identity was the “citizen journalism” website Agoravox. In October 2008, a post by Olivier Bailly on Agoravox identified Banon’s alleged attacker as none other than Dominique Strauss-Kahn. This genuine revelation did not come from an anonymous source, but rather from a named one: Tristane Banon herself. Agoravox’s scoop, however, went ignored by the traditional French media.