Paris • More than a year after resigning in disgrace as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is seeking redemption with a new consulting company, the lecture circuit and a uniquely French legal defense to settle a criminal inquiry that exposed his hidden life as a libertine.
Strauss-Kahn, 63, a silver-haired economist, is seeking to throw out criminal charges in an inquiry into ties to a prostitution ring in northern France with the legal argument that the authorities are unfairly trying to “criminalize lust.”
That defense and the investigation, which is facing a critical judicial hearing in late November, have offered a keyhole view into a clandestine practice in certain powerful circles of French society: secret soirees with lawyers, judges, police officials, journalists and musicians that start with a fine meal and end with naked guests and public sex with multiple partners.
In France, “Libertinage” has long history in the culture, dating from a 16th-century religious sect of French libertines. But the most perplexing question in the Strauss-Kahn affair is how a career politician with ambition to lead one of Europe’s most powerful nations was blinded to the possibility that his zest for sex parties could present a liability, or risk blackmail.
The exclusive orgies, called “parties fines” — lavish Champagne affairs costing around $13,000 each — were organized as a roving international circuit from Paris to Washington by businessmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with Strauss-Kahn. Some of that money, according to a lawyer for the main host, ultimately paid for prostitutes because of a shortage of women at the mixed soirees orchestrated largely for the benefit of Strauss-Kahn, who sometimes sought sex with three or four women.
On Thursday, Strauss-Kahn broke a long silence to acknowledge that perhaps his double life as an unrestrained libertine was a little outre.
“I long thought that I could lead my life as I wanted,” he said in an interview with the French magazine Le Point. “And that includes free behavior between consenting adults. There are numerous parties that exist like this in Paris, and you would be surprised to encounter certain people. I was naive.”
“I was too out of step with French society,” he added. “I was wrong.”
But whether his downfall will have a lasting impact on the culture of sexual privilege and impunity for powerful men in France remains uncertain. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
This month Strauss-Kahn won a major legal battle after a French prosecutor dropped part of the investigation into an alleged sexual assault at a hotel in Washington. A Belgian prostitute recanted her earlier accusation, saying the encounter was just rough sex play, but Strauss-Khan is still a suspect for involvement in a prostitution ring.
Buoyed by that first victory, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers predict he will triumph in France, where having sex with prostitutes is not illegal, although soliciting and pimping are.
In essence, they argue, there is nothing criminal about the sexual life of a libertine, according to Strauss-Kahn’s lead lawyer, Henri Leclerc.
That defense may not satisfy the charges in a New York civil lawsuit filed by Nafissatou Diallo, who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault last year in a New York hotel where she was a chambermaid. Lawyers representing both sides deny there are financial negotiations under way.
“His travels will eventually bring him to a courthouse in the Bronx, where he will face justice,” Kenneth Thompson, the lawyer representing Diallo, said in an interview.
All of Strauss-Kahn’s current legal woes in New York and France mixed together last year, with devastating results.
Strauss-Kahn’s name first surfaced in the French inquiry by chance, in May 2011. French investigators were tapping the telephones of Dominique Alderweireld, an owner of Belgian sex clubs who is also a suspect in the prostitution ring.
In one conversation between Alderweireld and a longtime childhood friend, Rene Kojfer, who worked at the Carlton Hotel in Lille, the men were gossiping about Strauss-Kahn’s recent New York arrest, according to lawyers involved in the case.
They then recalled a freewheeling luncheon in 2009 at a Paris restaurant called L’Aventure, and Kojfer discussed whether they could make money by offering information about that day to Diallo’s lawyer, Thompson, who was never called, the lawyers said.
At L’Aventure, Strauss-Kahn and a few friends gathered in a private basement club, carpeted in purple and black tiger stripes, with a female Belgian escort and Alderweireld’s companion, Beatrice Legrain, who recalled that lunch in an interview.
She said that Strauss-Kahn, energized by Viagra, had sex with the escort and then followed Legrain to the bathroom, grabbing her and demanding sex. But she said she rebuffed him and it “wasn’t a big deal.” Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer declined to comment.
In his own interview, Alderweireld made light of the “petit” episode at L’Aventure. His lawyer, Sorin Margulis, took a more scornful view: “It’s more an act of Louis XIV.”
The investigation into the prostitution ring in Lille ultimately swept up 10 suspects, including Strauss-Kahn. They knew one another largely through their membership as French Freemasons, according to Karl Vandamme, a defense lawyer who represents Fabrice Paszkowski, the owner of a medical supply company who played a crucial role in organizing the sex parties.
“Libertines are people like you and me: people who have a normal life,” said Vandamme, who said his client invested around $65,000 in party expenses, betting on the political rise of Strauss-Kahn.
The banker, he said, would typically arrive late for the more than a dozen parties, held over a period of about five years. There was a rhythm to the gatherings, with everyone dressed for a sit-down dinner, he said. Then over time, couples separated, “kisses were exchanged between one woman and another and between a husband and the wife of a friend” until the guests “all ended up nude.”
Hubert Delarue, the lawyer for Kojfer, also accused of involvement in the prostitution ring, predicted that most of the suspects would be cleared. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers argue that he was unaware that some of the women were prostitutes because they were all naked by the time he arrived late, and the party hosts contend they reaped no profits.
“Prostitution was more regulated before,” Delarue said, “but it was for a certain type of population. Today among all those women, there are occasional prostitutes, and sometimes they’re top models who try to make ends meet. They aren’t miserable women on the sidewalk.”
Strauss-Kahn’s double life is not surprising to some Parisians.
“He’s not the only libertine man in the political world,” said Olivia Cattan, who leads an anti-sexism association called Words of Women and believes the case reflects a code of silence. “It is linked to power, and women are often complicit when it can guarantee them a job.”
While Strauss-Kahn awaits the outcome of his legal cases, he is shaping a new role for himself after being disowned by his Socialist party.
In the last two months he registered Parnasse, a consulting firm named for the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse, where he moved after separating from his wife, Anne Sinclair, in August.
He has delivered lectures in South Korea, Morocco, England and Ukraine, offering a eurozone rescue plan for wealthy countries to share some gains from favorable interest rate spreads with poorer nations.
“He’s a man of incredible moral strength,” said Michel Taubmann, his biographer. “I saw this man resisting, avoiding a fall. Never have I have seen him desperate. He knows he is innocent and wants to move forward.”
Strauss-Kahn has pleaded publicly for the media to “leave me in peace,” but he cannot escape his notoriety.
In the works is a French play, “Suite 2806” — inspired by the episode in the New York hotel room with the housekeeper — and, separately, a movie directed by Abel Ferrara with Gerard Depardieu.
And in a tribute to the whole affair, two French entrepreneurs are promoting a saffron-flavored soda to mix for cocktails at fashionable Paris bars. They are branding it as an aphrodisiac with a memorable label: Strauss-Kahn’s initials, DSK.