On May 14, 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the I.M.F. and then considered the front-runner in the 2012 French presidential election, was arrested in New York City for sexual assault and attempted rape of a chambermaid at the Sofitel hotel in Midtown.
At the time, the French public was shocked, not just by the salacious details of the accusation but in the way D.S.K. was treated those first 96 hours: yanked off an Air France flight 10 minutes before takeoff, frog-marched and booked at Rikers Island, only to be released six days later as long as he made bail, coughed up his passport, and remained under house arrest in a Tribeca apartment, which the New York Post politely labeled soon afterward as “Chez Perv.”
To see a French politician of D.S.K.’s stature treated as a common criminal was new territory for France. All too many times, politicians and movie stars, wealthy one-percenters and old-family patricians, have been given hall passes whenever they cross the line. This “Made in France” nepotism flies in the face of the country’s notion of République and its socialist societal fabric, but it’s always been shruggingly tolerated. That is, until now.
Politicians and movie stars, wealthy one-percenters and old-family patricians, have been given hall passes whenever they cross the line.
Almost a decade after D.S.K.’s arrest, France is combing through the wreckage of another presidential candidate’s midair explosion, this time in the form of François Fillon, the onetime favorite to win the 2017 French presidential contest, whose campaign was also derailed by scandal when it was revealed Fillon’s Welsh wife, Penelope, and two of their children had been receiving salaries as members of his parliamentary staff, salaries which didn’t make sense considering they had never worked for him.
Two weeks ago, both Fillons were convicted and sentenced to prison. Fillon himself received a five-year sentence, three of them suspended, along with a $425,000 fine. He’s also been banned from holding public office for 10 years. Penelope was given a three-year suspended sentence, and the Fillons must also pay back the more than $1 million Penelope and the kids never earned. Both are appealing the convictions, which means François doesn’t have to serve time … just yet.
When the faux-job scandal broke, in January 2017, many rushed to the Fillons’ defense, claiming in a French-Trumpian way that the accusations were nothing but an October surprise orchestrated by a left-leaning press. Some supporters brought Je suis Penelope signs to rallies. But even when a video surfaced days later showing Penelope admitting in a candid 2007 interview with the British Telegraph that she never worked in any capacity for her husband, and even when many in his own party urged him to drop out, Fillon doubled down on the shamelessness by sticking it out, his campaign looking more and more Anthony Weinerian by the day.
Fillon had his reasons, though. French politicians have proved time and time again that, if you can weather the storm, there are second acts in politics. All he had to do was look at the man he’d defeated in the primary, Alain Juppé, a longtime mayor of Bordeaux and the former French prime minister, who himself had been convicted of a no-show-jobs scandal in 2004. By 2006, voters had given Juppé his old job back as mayor of Bordeaux, a post he held until March 2019.
There was also Jean Tiberi, the former mayor of Paris, who’d been found guilty of vote rigging but was given only a suspended one-year prison sentence and fined just $14,000. Tiberi’s wife, Xavière, like Penelope, was also found guilty and given a suspended sentence. Neither ended up doing time, and Tiberi would go on to reclaim his post as mayor of Paris’s Fifth Arrondissement while finishing his career as one of the longest-serving members of the National Assembly. Both of these men’s stories (along with those of many others) convinced Fillon that for every John Edwards or Gary Hart, men who’ve since disappeared into the dustbin of American historical losers, French politicians never die; they just create a hellish political Groundhog Day for the rest of us.
And yet something feels different this time. Unlike many in French politics who dare not stick their neck out too far, Fillon always painted himself as the candidate of integrity and probity. Dubbed by the press as “Monsieur Propre,” Fillon was the stuffy practicing Catholic who wouldn’t be hopping on a scooter to see his actress girlfriend like François Hollande did. Nor would he separate from his wife a few months after the election and shack up with a singer-model, like Nicolas Sarkozy did with Carla Bruni. Fillon’s allure was that he incarnated not just political elitism but old French classic aristocracy, right down to the cringey, blueblood fact that François’s brother married Penelope’s sister. And although they claimed they were discreet, the Fillons were never shy about posing for magazines such as Paris Match, strolling on their large estate in the Sarthe region of France with all the dogs and kids and dad jeans you could handle.
Fillon was the stuffy practicing Catholic who wouldn’t be hopping on a scooter to see his actress girlfriend like François Hollande did.
But the throwback days of Pompidou and Chirac (a time when statecraft and state graft were blurred) are now being challenged in France, not just by the yellow-vest movement, which wants more of the pie, or the labor unrest that has rocked the country for the past two years, or by the current coronavirus pandemic, which has revealed just how much the French haves really have in terms of country houses to flee to and the number of loaves of sourdough bread they can post on Instagram, but also by new, generational, multicultural, and economically struggling voters who don’t see themselves in the Fillons’ penny-loafer and sweater-over-the-shoulders smugness, and who refuse to accept that giving your wife a fake salary is one of the “When you’re in, you’re in” perks to the job.
What’s not quite clear is who the real Penelope is. The Roman Catholic stay-at-home mom, who sacrificed her career to raise five children on the Fillons’ bucolic estate, in the Sarthe, or the hard-driving political go-getter who merited every centime she apparently earned as a member of her husband’s staff? If it is the latter, one has to wonder why Fillon never let his wife defend herself, to take to the talk shows and speak at rallies. Instead, she was muzzled, portrayed as a doe-eyed, oblivious mess. And while François used this foil to play the shining knight riding to his wife’s defense, pounding the lecterns and accusing those of “throwing us to the wolves,” many French could only snicker at how old-fashioned and misogynistic the whole mise-en-scène was. Even one of the prosecutors at the trial said to Penelope, “Madame, we feel bad for you.”
Economically struggling voters don’t see themselves in the Fillons’ penny-loafer and sweater-over-the-shoulders smugness.
Despite his third-place finish in the first round of the 2016 presidential election, and despite the black cloud of investigation hanging over him, few at the time were ready to write François Fillon’s obituary. But now with the verdict in and a contemporary France out for blood, perhaps the trajectory of D.S.K., not Juppé, will serve as prologue.
After the rape charges against him were dropped, D.S.K. returned to France, where, in 2014, he announced that he was joining a small investment-banking firm based out of Luxembourg, which would be renamed LSK. The firm would manage more than $2 billion in assets and be co-directed by his daughter Vanessa Strauss-Kahn. Unfortunately, LSK would not survive the year, collapsing amid rumors of financial improprieties, tax-evasion inquiries, heavy losses, and the suicide of D.S.K.’s partner, Thierry Leyne. Since then, D.S.K. has become sort of a #MeToo pariah in Paris, absent from the TV circuit and political podiums where he used to flourish, absent from the universities where he once lectured, earning his living consulting (but not so much) for the time-honored democracies of South Sudan and Russia. And Vanessa Strauss-Kahn? Her biography, posted on the Web site of ESCP Business School, where she’s been a professor of economics since 2008, gives no mention of her participation or involvement in LSK, nor of the salary she did or did not receive.
John von Sothen’s Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French comes out in paperback on August 25