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Worlds apart: Strauss-Kahn, his accuser share a native language but nothing else

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NEW YORK — Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that he sexually assaulted a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel.

Strauss-Kahn was accompanied by his wife as he formally answered the numerous charges against him. He faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted. Although prosecutors have said that the evidence against the economist has continued to mount, defense lawyers have said they have obtained information that could prove damaging to the maid’s credibility.

Monday’s hearing was the latest development in a scandal that has sparked an international media frenzy, tossed the IMF into chaos and endangered the agency’s efforts to stabilize the European debt crisis. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest has also thrown into stark relief the different lives of the accused and the accuser — he, 62 and one of the world’s most powerful men; she, a 32-year-old hotel housekeeper.

The rich and the poor cross paths thousands of times a day in this city of 8 million people, interacting in cabs and hotels, in restaurants and rail cars. Rarely do such routine encounters end in a collision of culture and class the way they apparently did last month in a 28th-floor suite at the Sofitel near Times Square.

Strauss-Kahn and the woman he is accused of attacking share an immigrant story, as French-speaking foreigners who found themselves on American soil. But that’s where the similarities end.

He was born into a wealthy French family and became a respected economist, an elected official, a finance minister and the leader of one of the most influential financial institutions on the planet. She is from Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa and one of the world’s poorest countries, and she sought asylum in the United States.

In Washington, Strauss-Kahn lives in an elegant brick mansion in Georgetown, bought for $4 million by his wife, Anne Sinclair, an heiress and former television and radio personality. The couple also own homes in Paris and Marrakesh, Morocco.

The maid lives with her teenage daughter in a run-down brick building in the Bronx, several blocks north of Yankee Stadium, in a neighborhood of check-cashing stores, fast-food restaurants and corner laundromats. Metal bars cover windows, and police sometimes barge through tenement halls in search of drug dealers. On a recent morning, the 4 train roared by every few minutes on the overhead track a block away.

Until his indictment on charges that include commission of a criminal sexual act and attempted rape, Strauss-Kahn spent his days meeting with heads of state and tackling some of the world’s most pressing financial problems, including the looming debt crisis in Europe and how to help poor nations climb the economic ladder. As head of the IMF, he earned more money than the president of the United States. Strauss-Kahn globe-trotted so much, his attorney said during a recent court hearing, that his passport ran out of room for stamps.

The maid, whose name has been withheld because of the nature of the allegations, lived a life far more predictable. She spent her days making the seven-mile trip from the Bronx to make the beds and clean the bathrooms of the Sofitel’s well-heeled clients.

On the evening of May 26, hours after a New York judge agreed to release Strauss-Kahn on bail while he awaited his next court hearing, two scenes played out in different parts of the city.

Inside the Sofitel on 44th Street, patrons sipped $18 martinis, munched on $23 hamburgers and mostly ignored the TV reporter offering a live report outside the lobby. Some guests headed upstairs to rooms with marble baths and stocked minibars, while others hailed cabs and disappeared into the swirl of midtown Manhattan.

Miles away on 116th Street in Harlem, many of the people who clean those hotel rooms and drive those cabs were congregating outside the barbershops and bodegas of the city’s most concentrated West African enclave, where the housekeeper had spent time among fellow immigrants.

A halal butcher stood in his doorway. Nearby, men headed into a mosque for evening prayers. The modest cafes served oxtail soup and thiebou djien, a traditional African fish dish. And nearly every television was tuned to French news broadcasts, most of which were reporting on the Strauss-Kahn case.

Here, as elsewhere, people chatted about the case, debating what transpired, whose story they believed or didn’t, how it might end. But they also agreed that the case was being handled differently in New York than it would have been in their home countries, where the word of the rich and powerful almost always trumps the word of the poor.

“If it had happened in Africa, they’re not going to take him to jail,” said Baillo Barry, 49, who emigrated from Guinea and owns the Fouta African Market on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Like others, she said the facts are still too hazy to assess guilt or innocence, but this much is certain: Unlike in the country where she and the maid came from, the U.S. justice system can act as a great equalizer.

“Here, it doesn’t matter who you are. . . . You could be rich, you could be poor,” she said. “It’s different here.”

Staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.

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