On September 18, Dominique Strauss-Kahn spoke with Claire Chazal, the long-time evening news anchor for Télévision France 1, making his first public remarks since his four-month arrest in New York. Kahn was arrested under allegations of sexual assault reported by Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid serving his New York room. She alleges that he emerged from behind her, grasped her breasts, told her she didn’t need to be sorry, and pinned her to the ground. When the crime was reported on May 15, police pulled D.S.K. off of his Paris-bound plane, and kept him in New York until the end of August when the New York district attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case.
Chazal’s interview consisted of first discussing his various sexual assault charges for sixteen minutes (D.S.K. faces charges in France over an alleged 2003 incident), followed by seven minutes discussing geopolitics. The interview was an exercise in appearances, more of a performance than an honest examination. The studio was set up Meet the Press style, the two talking heads angled towards each other with projections for each well-rehearsed topic appearing over Chazal’s shoulder—“Nafissatou Diallo,” followed by “American Justice.”
As she begins the interview, Chazal notes that the public had still not heard D.S.K.’s side of the story, and asks him if he could say what happened in his suite on May 14. He responds to the question without acknowledging the lead-up: “What happened includes neither violence, nor coercion, nor aggression, nor any criminal act. It is the district attorney who says that, not me.” He refers to the alleged rape only in the terms of “what happened,” and allows the D.A.’s report to speak for him, identifying only what didn’t happen.
He continues in this manner, not saying anything but appearing both contrite and vindicated, for most of the interview, pivoting to and usually holding aloft the D.A.’s report (the only prop in the otherwise bare studio) whenever he gives the facts.
At times, the interview seems fine-tuned to D.S.K.’s publicity needs. Ms. Chazal notes all of the extreme images (“the handcuffs”) presented to the French public and asks: “Do you imagine that the American justice system was particularly violent towards you?” He responds, after a long, serious pause: “How to tell you… I was afraid. I was very afraid. When you are taken in the jaws of this sort of machine, you have the impression that you might be crushed.”
The way the interview unfolds is ideal for D.S.K., because the imagery of violence is introduced without his having to bring it up himself. In fact, he doesn’t even have to respond to the question, and the hypothesis of violent treatment allows him to share his traumatic experience of being (for once?) on the wrong end of mechanisms of power.
At one point, D.S.K. reiterates Ms. Diallo’s words to illustrate why she isn’t to be trusted. He changes his inflection and waves a hand in the air, paraphrasing, “he’s a rich man, I know what I’m doing.” He’s referring to a phone call recorded between Ms. Diallo and her fiancé, who is currently serving time in an Arizona jail for large-scale marijuana dealing, and has been running tens of thousands of dollars through Ms. Diallo’s accounts. Though Ms. Diallo and her attorney contend that the phone call was mistranslated, and that she was referring to understanding the risks of confronting power, the D.A. holds that multiple translations are “materially similar in their discussion of making money with the assistance of a civil lawyer”—the interpretation that D.S.K. presented in the interview.
The D.A.’s dismissal motion that let D.S.K. off sheds light on what happened in the hotel room. The motion’s first page reads: “The physical, scientific, and other evidence establishes that the defendant engaged in a hurried sexual encounter with the complainant, but it does not independently establish her claim of a forcible, nonconsensual encounter. Aside from the complainant and the defendant, there are no other eyewitnesses to the incident… Indeed, the case rises and falls on her testimony.” With the event’s only two eyewitnesses offering two different stories, mounting doubt as to Ms. Diallo’s credibility became the case’s determining factor. The D.A. writes, “the nature and number of the complainant’s falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt [and therefore] we cannot ask a jury to do so.”
The reasons for disbelief date back to a rape account that Ms. Diallo provided in order to gain asylum in the United States. Ms. Diallo now admits to have entirely fabricated her account of having been raped by Guinean soldiers. The dismissal motion details tremendous inconsistencies in her recent story as well. Originally, Ms. Diallo claimed to have fled the hotel room after the rape, cowering in the hall until running into her supervisor. On June 28, however, she provided a radically different account in which after the rape she continued cleaning rooms on the floor (including D.S.K.’s) before running into her supervisor and asking, hypothetically, if guests were allowed to force themselves on maids. Her final account, provided in July, has her once again hiding after the rape and telling a supervisor after running into D.S.K.’s room to recover her cleaning supplies, a story that doesn’t match that of the supervisor. As for the tamer June 28th account, which she insisted at the time was the real story, she denied—even to the very prosecutors who heard her say it—ever having given it.
Despite the motion’s narrative of damning inconsistencies, this isn’t the only story to be found in the official facts. The motion notes reliable witnesses reporting that Ms. Diallo was upset when reporting the encounter immediately afterwards, evidence that she was out of the room fewer than seven minutes after entering it. There were also semen stains on Ms. Diallo’s dress and (mixed with her spit) on the room’s wallpaper. Though it’s difficult to accept Ms. Diallo’s inconsistent stories, it’s at least equally difficult to see this evidence as a wholly consensual encounter.
CONSENT AND POWER
Towards the end of the interview, D.S.K. opens up about what hurt him most: the portrait of him constructed in the media. “My whole life had been presented as if, because I had power—and it’s true that I had power, I exercised functions of authority—relations with others, man and woman, must always pass through this relation of power, and that’s not who I am.”
Despite D.S.K.’s protestations, it’s hard to imagine what was in play in the messy six-minute sexual encounter between global capitalist leader and hotel maid, if not the relations of power.
I believe Ms. Diallo’s now-denied June 28 statement, her hypothetical question about what guests are allowed to do to maids, is an accurate account of what that guest did to this maid. Even if the encounter occurred without violence per se, the chief of the International Monetary Fund must know as well as anyone that there are coercive aspects of power that don’t require outright violence. Are we really to believe that it was his charm and not his position as a powerful client (and her desire to keep her job) that was in play if indeed the “hurried sexual encounter” occurred without violence?
Perhaps that is what D.S.K. meant when he admitted in the first minute of the interview that the encounter was a “moral fault” that he continues to regret, but I doubt it. For D.S.K., it was a fault “towards my wife, my children, my friends, but also a fault towards the French people.” The fault, then, unfolds from getting caught and not from the deed itself. The essence of the scandal is the abuse of power to satisfy and hide sexual whims, and remains, for D.S.K. at least, neither a legal nor a moral fault. His fault is one of appearances. With a French public largely unsatisfied by his interview, it is in terms of appearances that he is forced to account, serving his time until voters allow him back into politics.
The legal system strives to ensure that the use of force remains in the hands of the law’s own operatives. Without evidence of violent force against a helpless individual, our only recourse to punish offensive behavior is to see through attempts made by offenders to convince us of their innocence.
Ben Tucker ’13 is unconvinced.