By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
PARIS, Oct. 27 -- With unusual unanimity, French political leaders across the spectrum expressed relief Monday that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was cleared of abusing his power in a sexual dalliance with a married subordinate.
The satisfaction stemmed from broad concern that French national honor might be stained had Strauss-Kahn been forced to resign his prestigious post in Washington after only one year on the job -- and during an acute financial crisis in whose resolution the IMF and Strauss-Kahn have important roles to play.
Moreover, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been counting on Strauss-Kahn for support in his efforts to impose strong new regulations on international banking despite caution from the Bush administration. World leaders have scheduled a summit conference Nov. 15 in Washington to get the program started but remain divided on how radical and how swift it should be.
Beyond the easy-to-discern political concerns, some leaders here also blamed American prudery for what they interpreted as a witch hunt over a personal indiscretion that, in the French tradition, did not merit so much fuss. Their reaction recalled the dismissive attitude of many in France during the uproar in Washington a decade ago over then-President Bill Clinton's conduct in his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Several political figures also suggested that the investigation launched against Strauss-Kahn represented an attempt to undermine his leadership or get him fired, making way for someone more in line with Bush administration thinking. They noted news of the inquiry was broken by the Wall Street Journal, which they suggested was a platform for conservatives who have opposed the Socialist as head of the of the IMF since he took over in September 2007.
"This is good news," said Frédéric Lefebvre, spokesman for Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party. "For it proved impossible to dislodge someone over his private life. There were people out there who did not wish him well."
Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, a member of Parliament and a Strauss-Kahn ally in the opposition Socialist Party, noted that French politicians came together to defend the beleaguered IMF chief against what Cambadélis qualified as "a political cabal seeking to destabilize Dominique Strauss-Kahn." Saturday's announcement, he added, is also "good news for the International Monetary Fund, which plays a considerable role in the financial crisis we are going through."
Sarkozy, whose own tumultuous romantic life was the staple of French tabloids for months, made no public comment beyond Lefebvre's. But news reports said he had been dismayed to learn of the allegations 10 days ago as he was on his way to Washington to persuade President Bush to hold the summit designed to contain the crisis and, in Sarkozy's vision, "recast international capitalism."
Strauss-Kahn, 59, a former finance minister and senior figure in the Socialist Party, was investigated by an outside law firm on suspicion that he might have abused his authority in the affair early this year with a Hungarian former IMF official, Piroska Nagy, and in her departure this summer to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London under an IMF voluntary retirement plan.
The IMF board of directors, after reviewing the findings, announced Saturday evening in Washington that Strauss-Kahn had not abused his power and would be retained as head of the institution. But it blamed him for "a regrettable incident" that the directors called "a serious error of judgment on the part of the director general."
Strauss-Kahn, aided by an emergency team of lawyers and public relations advisers, last week had admitted an error of judgment and apologized to IMF staff.
Although the directors focused on whether Strauss-Kahn was guilty of sexual harassment of Nagy or abuse of authority in influencing her departure and early-retirement package, French politicians seemed to emphasize what they considered exaggeration of a peccadillo that should have remained in his private life. Their comments reflected the attitudes of a nation where such liaisons by political leaders are not uncommon and are sometimes celebrated as a sign of vitality.
The Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, a fellow Socialist, hailed the decision and added: "I have always said that anything concerning personal life has nothing to do with public life."
Strauss-Kahn's wife, the television interview personality Anne Sinclair, also approached the problem as that of a straying husband. "These things happen in the life of any couple," she said on her blog last week. "For my part, this one-night stand is behind us. We have turned the page."
Nagy, through her attorneys, has declined to comment.
Some IMF staff members also voiced suspicion that Strauss-Kahn had abused his authority in getting a young French woman taken on as an intern in the research department even though her qualifications were allegedly below the usual standards. The woman, a family friend of Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair's, had worked for Strauss-Kahn when he sought unsuccessfully to become the Socialist Party candidate in France's May 2007 presidential election.
The outside law firm found that Strauss-Kahn requested through a senior staff member in his office that the woman be considered for an internship, but talked to no one in the research department. The firm found no evidence that he applied pressure on anyone to hire her, it said, noting that referring candidates for consideration is a common practice at the IMF.
In France, helping aides find jobs traditionally has been viewed as a duty by politicians.