Photo credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock
Recently, I’ve been watching Jalil Lespert’s Netflix miniseries Room 2806: The Accusation. This four-episode docu-drama recounts the rise and fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at the time the President of the International Monetary Fund and a leading candidate for the French presidency.
Strauss-Kahn (familiarly known as DSK) was arrested in New York City in May 2011 and charged with the alleged sexual assault of a hotel housekeeper, Nafiassatou Diallo. The charges were later dropped when Diallo’s record of lying to immigration authorities led prosecutors to believe that a trial would be a lost cause. Though questions are raised about this decision in the series, it’s hard to see how the Manhattan District Attorney’s office could have done otherwise.
This was years before similar charges were brought against similarly high-profile men in the United States, such as Harvey Weinstein, igniting the #MeToo movement that would dramatically challenge the previous impunity enjoyed by powerful men who were also sexual predators.
Though DSK escaped trial for this event, Lespert skillfully lays out Strauss-Kahn’s well-established record as a séducteur, along with past and subsequent accusations of sexual offenses that far surpass the acts of a simple skirt chaser. The most serious accusations involved an attempted assault on the young journalist Tristane Banon in 2003, and his 2015 trial for “aggravated procurement,” a result of orgies with prostitutes in a luxury hotel in Lille at which the women were referred to as “livestock” and “dossiers.”
Lespert less convincingly alludes to the possibility that the Diallo case was set-up by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President at the time. Like most of the French political class, Sarkozy knew about DSK’s priapic tendencies. Could he have entrapped DSK to dispose of a rival?
This accusation, made by a single journalist but never substantiated, isn’t even plausible: how would Sarkozy’s minions know to send an African housekeeper who lives in New York to a specific room on a specific day to entrap Strauss-Kahn? That Strauss-Kahn blew up his own career, knowing full well he was being watched over by French security services, is undeniable.
Lespert, through a series of interviews, effectively lays out the sexual culture that enabled a figure like Strauss-Kahn. Élisabeth Gigou, a Socialist politician, speaks of the widespread harassment of women in the party. Tristane Banon laments the fact that her mother didn’t warn her about DSK’s proclivities, of which she was certainly aware – since she herself had had an affair with him!
Sadly, not cited in Room 2806 is an alternative description of DSK from the Franco-Argentine writer Marcela Iacub, who had an affair with him and wrote of it in a novel, Belle et Bête: “You were old, you were fat, you were short and you were ugly. You were macho, you were vulgar, you were insensitive and you were mean-spirited. You were egotistical, you were brutish and you had no culture. And I was mad about you.”
The French acceptance of male marital wanderlust, and of aggressive responses to rebuff, are shockingly underlined in a pre-Diallo Affair clip from a popular TV show. On it, Tristane Banon discussed her encounter with DSK light-heartedly, and her account of the rape is greeted with laughter by the other guests on the show. “Men will be men” is the message that they all seem to accept.
Lascivious politicians, men whose tendencies were as widely known as Strauss-Kahn’s were in France, are not foreign to our shores, even reaching the presidency on more than one occasion. The more extreme end of Strauss-Kahn’s predilections – the orgies, the secret apartments, the violence – were also at the heart of the Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein affairs. Men using their power to obtain sexual favors is a phenomenon that knows no borders.
And yet, Strauss-Kahn’s conduct is nevertheless different, and in such a way that reveals an endemic rot of a particularly French nature, which does not exist in nearly the same way in the US, or indeed in most other countries.
This rot has exploded into the open with the various scandals involving figures of some importance: Not just Strauss-Kahn, but the pedophile writer Gabriel Matzneff, and the political scientist Olivier Duhamel, who carried on an incestuous relationship with his adolescent stepson.
In the docu-drama, one of Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers wonders how it’s possible for libertinage to be put on trial in the twenty-first century, and there lies the nub of the affair – the aspect that makes it truly poisonous, truly French, and different from anything we are familiar with here.
The furtiveness and tawdriness of the marital misdeeds of our politicians and public figures, their denials, their willingness to drag their wives through the shame of their public apologies – all signs of a hypocrisy, of a lingering puritanism attached to sex in America. Even Weinstein and Epstein, despite their glaringly apparent guilt, consistently denied everything for as long as possible, in some cases never admitting to acts of which they were clearly guilty. As the great French moral philosopher La Rochefoucauld put it 300 years ago, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. American’s most notorious recent sexual predators have acknowledged virtue in that way.
In the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn there has been no such tribute. Libertinage explains and excuses all, and it is unabashedly brandished as an excuse that is also a justification.
Le droit du seigneur has had a long life in France. Matzneff, the avowedly pedophilic French writer whose preference for sexual partners not older than sixteen has now placed him in the middle of a storm, invoked libertinage as the source of his delight in his published journal of his affair with a fourteen-year-old girl, La Prunelle de Mes Yeux.
The French cult of Sade is the most blatant form of the presentation of libertinage as a revolutionary challenge to bourgeois morality. This vision entered modern French intellectual life with Apollinaire in the early twentieth century and reached its apex with the Surrealists’ deification of the man, though its defense and reality has continued decades beyond them.
DSK considers himself the heir to this libertine tradition. The centuries-long entrenchment of this ideology with its deep roots in French culture – particularly among the intellectual and social elite – allowed him to think he could act with impunity. The use of prostitutes would not be an oddity in any country; orgies organized by a mainstream politician with multiple prostitutes at a hotel, arranged with the assistance of hotel staff, could only occur in a society in which this is normalized.
In condemning libertinage, one worries about the risks of moralizing, of imposing a puritanical morality on those free of it: this is what DSK’s lawyer implies. Anne Sinclair, DSK’s wife at the time of the Diallo Affair, when first confronted with the many accusations against her husband, has no problem defending him: is it his fault that he’s better looking and more charming than most public figures? In their very first encounter, when the television host Sinclair interviewed Strauss-Kahn on a video feed, she, too, was clearly subjugated by his charm and engaged in sexually charged badinage with him.
But is it really moralistic to condemn the conduct of Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Accepting that premise requires ignoring what is really the heart of this matter, something revealed clearly in Room 2806. It is not only a historical acceptance of libertinage that is at play here, but something larger: the question of power, which DSK possessed in enormous quantities. If sex were all that was involved then it would be none of our concern. But libertinage in its essence contains a form of fascism.
This was most clearly demonstrated by that most eccentric of left-wing artists, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in Salò, his film of Sade’s most outrageous book, The 120 Days of Sodom.
Pasolini’s great insight was to place the actions and acts of the book among a group of supporters of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic – the Republic of Salò – the short-lived, unbridled fascist state established after the Germans liberated the deposed Mussolini from Italian imprisonment. The abuse of the bodies of the powerless by the mighty, which, in Sade, is the reductio ad absurdum of libertinage (though Sade found nothing absurd about it) is here restored to its political dimension: The reduction of others to a mere vessel, to literally eating shit at the orders of the powerful, is shown for what it is. It has little to do with sexual morality: There is nothing revolutionary or liberating about it. It is fascism.
To be sure, DSK did not push matters to the extremes that Sade wrote of or that Pasolini depicts. There is reason to believe that he has had willing partners, but DSK has just as certainly has had less than willing ones. It would be naïve to think that Diallo and Banon are the only women upon whom DSK imposed himself. The prostitute in Lille who describes her displeasure with what Strauss-Kahn demanded of her shows that, like Sade, he cared nothing for the pain and suffering he inflicted on those victims he paid, and that degrading them was a source of his pleasure.
And if the assault on Diallo was never prosecuted because of her history of telling falsehoods about her past, no sensible viewer of Room 2806 doubts for a second that in this case she was telling the truth.
The sense of impunity felt by the powerful when dealing with the powerless, or anyone with less power, is nowhere more clearly a motivating force than it is here. As president of the IMF, it would have been beyond foolish for Strauss-Kahn to do what he almost certainly did, were he not certain of coming out of the situation untouched. This sense of being immune to any form of penalty is a defining element of fascism. Libertinage is not a question of puritanism on one hand and liberation on the other. For libertines, as exemplified by DSK, libertinage means freedom for me but not for thee.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.