Geopolitics

The Gambler: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, A Psychological Profile

Since Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on attempted rape charges, and with the latest news that his accuser's credibility is in doubt, those who know him best paint the picture of a public enigma whose desire for freedom – and women – always risked undermin

The Gambler: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, A Psychological Profile
Raphaëlle Bacqué and Ariane Chemin

PARIS - It is a crazy story, one that could have only happened to him: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, whose multiple talents offered the chance to achieve the loftiest goals -- yet who was capable of sacrificing it all for the most trivial of pleasures.

Magnetic and yet sometimes disturbingly flippant, more concerned with his freedom than his reputation, the man known as DSK is the star of a paroxystic adventure that saw him, within the space of six weeks, go from being the favorite in the upcoming French presidential elections to being charged, on Monday May 16, with sexual assault. As he faced the dire possibility of spending the rest of his days in jail, along comes redemption, on July 1, when serious doubts surfaced about the credibility of his accuser, a New York chambermaid.

The good thing about scandals -- and their danger -- is that, regardless of whether there is any truth to them, whomever they hit is left naked. Dissected. The truth of what happened on Saturday, May 14, in that suite at the Manhattan Sofitel in New York may well never be revealed, but what the incident did do was focus the spotlight on DSK, a man who, despite his public profile, had thus far shown an uncanny ability to keep his secrets secret. Suddenly, he faced not only the scanner of public opinion but the scrutiny of those who knew him—friends and colleagues who have spent the last six weeks psychoanalyzing not only him but themselves.

Between ‘"black Monday"" and ‘"holy Friday"", DSK's friends -- elected officials, functionaries, former colleagues, business leaders, friends of the family -- got together to talk about him, and together, step by step, put together an informal profile. Without letting themselves get swept up in the tide of prevailing public opinion, they conducted a discreet, and perhaps overdue, examination of conscience. In pairs and small groups, in cafés and country homes, they analyzed the floor plan of the Sofitel suite and attempted to recreate the scenario, minute by minute. They were awed by how far DSK had fallen, how fast, and ‘"live"" he was for all to see -- and they were rarely sure that their friend was entirely beyond reproach.

The only "profile" they rejected out of hand was that of a violent man."Dominique runs at the slightest sign of conflict!" "He never spanked his kids." "He's not a courageous man." A relative said: ‘"He's too lazy to force anybody."

Passionately committed to the process, each one looked squarely at what they knew about DSK. "I don't know what he did in New York, but I know how he was at Bercy the French Finance Ministry headquarters and in Washington", says Stéphane Boujnah, who was DSK's advisor when the latter was Finance Minister and who now heads the Santander bank in Paris. He remembers how quickly DSK rallied even the most diehard technocrats at Bercy; how prodigious his memory was; how he played the financial crisis to advantage to morph the International Monetary Fund, that crusty and much disparaged institution, into a lever for global rescue; and his talent for explaining France to the world and the world to the French.

Everyone in their box

Each bit of input from those who know him best is just a piece of the puzzle of the larger psychological portrait of DSK. "One very particular thing about Dominique is that he'll only tell people as much as they can handle," Boujnah continues. Everybody in their box: that was a Strauss-Kahn rule.

"His freedom was more important to him than anything else," says a deputy. "Dominique always thought he could master his fate and organize things in such a way that he wouldn't have to sacrifice everything, and where only he had the key."

In this disparate club that included noted economists and CEO's and marketing mavens, each only knew about "Strauss' whatever seemed to suit their own character and values. To François Villeroy de Galhau, DSK's chief of staff at the Ministry of Finance, he was a père de famille, a fierce defender of a Christian ethic in finance, powerhouse economist, visionary. To Ramzi Khiroun, a communication adviser, DSK was a man who sent coded texts, shared unutterable secrets, and whose tangled life had to be untangled. To friends of his wife, Anne Sinclair, he was the sociable happy clan chief on family vacations in Marrakech. To bachelor friends, he was a ladies' man.

Strauss-Kahn described himself by saying: ‘"I'm a chameleon."" Each person only got a part of him, and of his time, although all agree ‘"he was always late,"" with many adding ‘"and God knows where he'd been.""

This inner circle knows why the Sofitel story ‘caught on": why it seemed credible, even if it was beyond the pale, with its dark side and also the possibility that it could have been part of a set-up. As one entourage member put it: ‘"In Dominique, you get the brightest guy of his generation -- and Darth Vader."" The encounter of the IMF boss and the maid at the Manhattan Sofitel crossed the randomness of a hotel housekeeping schedule with the fatality of a temperament, the poison of doubt instilled on fertile ground.

The incredible story provided empirical evidence of DSK's weaknesses and raised questions about his suitability for the French presidency, for which he was thought before the scandal to be the strongest Socialist candidate to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy. Way too much of a penchant for pleasure and risk. An almost amoral confidence in his own good fortune. And finally, an entourage of facilitators ready to make excuses for him. Even if the American justice system drops all charges, for DSK this episode has meant getting a clinical examination that reveals the skeleton beneath the suit.

The way he related to women lies at the heart of all the suspicion surrounding him. In the Strauss-Kahn fan club, his insatiable need was not a taboo, in fact, it was viewed with amusement. In the 1990s, staffers at the Ministry of Finance would say "encore une" (another one) during DSK's absences from the office, while chief of staff Villeroy de Galhau preferred the explanation ‘"he's gone out on an errand.""

Even business leaders and high-level government officials talked about his relentless womanizing. As one of his oldest advisors put it: "He has as many affairs in a month as you or I would have in our whole lives'. DSK himself somewhat defensively told a Libération reporter last April: "Yes, I love women...So what?"

Eyes Wide Shut

Yet nobody was surprised when they saw Anne Sinclair by his side at the doors of the New York court building—no one doubts that they love each other deeply. "They're a real couple", says Hélène Roques, who worked with DSK at the Ile-de-France regional council in the dark years after his resignation in 1999 from Lionel Jospin's government. To which someone else who knows them adds: "As Baudelaire would say, he chose a woman who loves and understands him."" If they'd all too often seen Sinclair pretend not to notice the way he ogled or texted other women, they also saw the public declarations of love she and he sent each other at difficult times, in blogs or even IMF communiqués. Those loyal to him refused to see that there was anything atypical about the couple.

But the shock of seeing press photos of ‘"their Dominique" in handcuffs had people going back and reviewing the past, checking for any signs that could have presaged something like this. "Let's face it, the erotic esthetic of Eyes Wide Shut is Dominique's preferred universe," says a former female colleague, referring to the Stanley Kubrick film. DSK advisor Nina Mitz remembers his enthusiasm for The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's best-selling novel: he loved the encrypted messages, the machinations, the occult rituals, and the liberties taken with Christian morality, she says.

A former colleague remembers an argument he had with DSK. He was incensed that his boss could pursue a libertine lifestyle yet envisage running for president. In 2003, Le Nouvel Observateur reported that a nameless ‘"government minister"" had been spotted at a swingers' soirée. Worried, he confronted DSK with this, pointing to the need for caution and advising him to tone it down. "You're just saying that because you're jealous," he reports DSK as having replied in an untroubled tone of voice. Strauss-Kahn would later tell the French newspaper La Libération: "For years, there have been rumors of giant orgies. But I've yet to see anything in the media about that..."

After the mention in the Nouvel Observateur, those working for DSK realized that he wasn't just simply a pleasure-seeker -- he was a gambler. "Except he doesn't just play chess with his computer. He plays with fire," a family member said. There have already been two occasions in the past when DSK thought his career was over. In November 1999, implicated in the Mutuelle nationale des étudiants de France (MNEF) scandal with charges of falsifying invoices, he was forced to resign from his post as Minister of Finance. Then, in October 2008, his affair with a Hungarian economist, Piroska Nagy, who was his subordinate at the IMF, made world headlines. Both times, he was absolved. As DSK is so fond of saying: "With a little intelligence, you can get out of anything..."

See more coverage in original French versions

photo - Greek Prime Minister's office

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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