LILLE, France – A high-profile pimping case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn nearly unraveled Monday, as five of six plaintiffs in a French prostitution trial dropped their accusations against him, saying there's no proof that the former International Monetary Fund chief violated the law.
Strauss-Kahn has testified to having orgies while he was managing the world financial crisis, to being "rough" with his sexual "conquests," and to needing sex with exceptional frequency. But none of that is illegal.
As the trial in northern France entered its third and final week Monday, it looked increasingly likely that the onetime presidential contender will walk away with a clean criminal record.
Strauss-Kahn is accused of aggravated pimping over a series of sex parties in France, Washington and Brussels, while he was leading the IMF, and was married. He's one of 14 people accused of involvement in a prostitution ring run out of the Hotel Carlton in Lille.
Strauss-Kahn insists he didn't know the women involved were prostitutes. Two of his co-defendants say they recruited and paid the women themselves, and built a wall of silence to ensure that Strauss-Kahn wasn't aware.
Lawyers for four prostitutes and an association that had filed suit announced Monday that they are abandoning their pursuit of Strauss-Kahn, court officials said. The five plaintiffs maintained accusations against other defendants in the trial, but the prostitutes are seeking only one euro in symbolic damages from the others, the officials said.
Only one association, a group pushing to abolish prostitution called Nid or "nest," maintained its accusations against Strauss-Kahn and his 13 co-defendants.
That could still be enough to persuade the three-judge panel to hand down convictions.
But even the prosecutor didn't think there was enough of a case against Strauss-Kahn, and argued in 2013 against including him in the trial. Under French law, investigating judges can override prosecutors' recommendations and send someone to trial anyway, which they did with Strauss-Kahn.
He faces up to 10 years in prison and 1.5 million euros ($1.7 million) in fines if convicted. But Prosecutor Frederic Fevre could argue for acquittal for Strauss-Kahn during closing arguments Tuesday, focusing instead on getting convictions for other defendants.
During three days of surrealistic testimony by Strauss-Kahn about the orgies, the prosecutor and his assistant remained largely silent.
Sometimes in tears, two prostitutes described "beast-like" scenes, involving sometimes brutal sex practices. One said she felt like meat in a slaughterhouse.
The testimony showed what one lawyer called the "sordid and dark reality" of the sex business. But the prostitutes said they had participated of their own accord and were never paid directly by Strauss-Kahn, and never told him they were paid sex workers.
Even a plaintiff's lawyer acknowledged the case isn't black and white. "I have the absolute certainty that Mr. Strauss-Kahn knew that there were some prostitutes in this international ring. Is that sufficient to establish a pimping offense? We will debate about that," lawyer David Lepidi said.
Strauss-Kahn's IMF job and presidential chances collapsed in 2011 when he was arrested in New York on accusations that he sexually assaulted a hotel maid. Those charges were later dropped and he settled out of court. He was also accused of attempted rape of a French writer; that case was dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.
The Lille case is the first time he has been put on trial. He openly testified to extravagant sex, but said he thought the women present were "libertines" like himself.
While the line between politicians' public and private lives has blurred somewhat in France in recent years, it remains more acceptable here for a politician to have extra-marital sexual encounters than in some other countries. French President Francois Hollande elicited shock and criticism in the United States when caught by paparazzi visiting a lover on his motorbike, but a year later, French voters have largely moved on.
As this trial unfolds, there's a sense that Strauss-Kahn crossed beyond even what the French tolerate from their politicians. But that doesn't necessarily mean he will go to prison.
To prove that Strauss-Kahn is guilty, the trial has to show that Strauss-Kahn knew the women were prostitutes, and that he arranged their activities as prostitutes or profited financially from them. Prostitution is legal in France, but it's illegal to organize a prostitution ring or profit from a prostitute's business.
Investigating magistrates said text messages between Strauss-Kahn and another defendant show that Strauss-Kahn was the "central pivot and principal beneficiary" of the orgies. On occasion, he was the "instigator" and the only beneficiary, sexually serviced by several women at once, they wrote. They also said he facilitated prostitution by providing an apartment for some of the women to work.
Those arguments, however, came up only briefly at the trial.
Strauss-Kahn, who has appeared increasingly confident throughout the proceedings, may take the stand himself Friday for a closing statement. The judges will decide Friday when to deliver a verdict.
Chief judge Bernard Lemaire opened the trial by stressing the court would not judge sexual activities among consenting adults.
"The court," he said, "is not the guardian of moral order, but of the law."