Artful politician that he is, former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn has a keen sense for not just his strengths, but also his potential weaknesses — although few would be quite as blunt in saying so.
Considered the Socialist party’s leading candidate for president of France, Strauss-Kahn identified three threats to his aspirations in an interview with the newspaper Liberation, held on April 28, but published only this week.
“Money, women and my Jewishness,” he said.
“Yes, I like women,” he went on. “So what?”
Strauss-Kahn added: “For years they’ve been talking about photos of giant orgies, but I’ve never seen anything come out.”
Today, Strauss-Kahn sits in a jail cell on Rikers Island in New York, his reputation — and any political ambitions — perhaps irreparably tarnished by his arrest on charges of attempted rape of a hotel maid in Manhattan last weekend.
It is a humbling comedown for Strauss-Kahn, whose rise on the world stage has been marked by contradictions.
As managing director of the IMF in Washington since late 2007, Strauss-Kahn has returned the agency to relevance by helping engineer a US$1 trillion bailout for Europe — but only after an initial humiliation when he was reprimanded for a brief affair in 2008 with a subordinate.
A prominent Socialist, he has held powerful positions in previous French governments despite his wealth, lavish lifestyle and his reputation as a womanizer.
“Even the chatter about women was discounted enormously by everyone around him,” said Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy program at the New America Foundation, who first met Strauss-Kahn in 1998 and was impressed by his strong personality.
“I don’t think there was a conspiracy of silence,” Clemons said. “The discussion I always heard about him was he’s one of the titans, that he’s such an extraordinarily different person, that rules don’t apply to him in the same way.”
One former IMF official said that, had Strauss-Kahn been a less senior person, he might have been fired or at least “sent to Siberia” because of the affair with his underling. He survived an investigation, in part, this person said, because the culture at the IMF dictated “no rules” for the managing director and because there was little appetite to rid the agency of a charismatic and effective leader when an international financial crisis was looming.
Strauss-Kahn arrived at the IMF at what would be an opportune time for him and the agency, which had become an international organization with little clout since the Asian financial crisis in the mid-1990s. A former finance minister for France, he had a deep knowledge of international economics and was on a first-name basis with most of Europe’s top leaders.
He played a pivotal role as Europe’s debt crisis deepened in May last year and leaders were deadlocked over what to do. In midnight phone calls, Strauss-Kahn pressed them to take action quickly, before things got worse. His insistence helped overcome their hesitance, and they agreed to a set up a US$1 trillion rescue package to help Greece and other troubled countries, with the IMF contributing to the bailout fund. And as countries like Germany pushed for harder austerity terms, he was consistently vocal in saying that could backfire by slowing economic growth too much — which seems to be the case in Greece today.