PARIS – French voters who've shrugged at politicians' infidelities for decades are suddenly grappling with something far more serious: allegations that International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn engaged in a pattern of sexual assaults dating to at least 2002.
Strauss-Kahn's defenders say his self-acknowledged reputation as a womanizer made him vulnerable to a baseless smear campaign aimed at derailing the most serious threat to President Nicolas Sarkozy in national elections next year. They point out that Strauss-Kahn's accusers in France have yet to file formal complaints, let alone offer evidence.
But other commentators are wondering if the long-standing French tolerance for private sexual misadventures has allowed criminality by one of France's best-known public figures to go unpunished. Questions are being raised about what some call an "omerta" — or unofficial law of silence — in France about sexual misconduct.
The lawyer for a 31-year-old novelist, Tristane Banon, said Monday that she was likely to file a criminal complaint in coming days accusing Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her nine years ago. Banon first made a public accusation against Strauss-Kahn in a 2007 French television interview, saying he wrenched open her bra and tried to unbutton her jeans during an attempt to rape her.
Banon's attorney said that she had been dissuaded from filing charges by her mother, a member of a regional council who belongs to Strauss-Kahn's Socialist party. Lawyer David Koubbi told French radio RTL that Banon now "knows she'll be taken seriously."
Strauss-Kahn, who is married with four children, has long had a reputation for making sexual approaches to other women that he's done little to dispel. Three years ago, he found himself clinging to his IMF job after its board chastised him for having an affair with a married subordinate.
In response to the accusations, Strauss-Kahn has said only that he has a passion for women, and made vague promises to behave better. French voters and pundits met the tales of straying with knowing winks.
"We are not in an Anglo-Saxon country, and stories of cheating and affairs or adultery make us smile," said Jerome Fourquet, a pollster with IFOP agency. "But here the logic is different. It's about a crime, and if it's proven to be true — a rape attempt — this is different."
A New York judge on Monday ordered Strauss-Kahn, 62, held without bail until a Friday hearing on charges of attempted rape and other charges stemming from a maid's accusation that he assaulted her at a New York hotel over the weekend. Defense attorney Benjamin Brafman said Strauss-Kahn was innocent and the case had only just begun.
An outspoken member of Sarkozy's conservative party alleged that Strauss-Kahn had engaged in other misconduct at the hotel.
"It's not the first time that DSK is involved in this kind of actions at the Sofitel," Michel Debre was quoted as saying on the Internet site of weekly L'Express. "That's where he always stayed. It happened several times and for several years."
"Everyone knew it in the hotel," he added.
Debre offered no evidence to back up his claims, which Sofitel called "baseless and defamatory." Assistant District Attorney John A. McConnell said in court, however, that New York authorities were investigating at least one other case of "conduct similar to the conduct alleged."
Sofitel management "has had no knowledge of any previous attempted aggressions," the hotel said, adding that it had set up a phone hotline for workers to report incidents more than a year ago.
The shock has been especially brutal for France's Socialists, a party plagued by dissent in recent years that increasingly had seemed to gel around the possibility that Strauss-Kahn could return them to power.
Strauss-Kahn has led the polls for months as the most favored man to win the 2012 presidential race, while Sarkozy's popularity has sagged for months. Sarkozy allies said he had advised them to lay low and show caution amid the uproar.
As an economist and former finance minister, he was noted for his savvy on crucial pocketbook issues and both gravitas and poise — at least publicly.
Strauss-Kahn's supporters on the French left expressed shock, or said the allegations didn't resemble the man they knew. They said they were reserving judgment and criticized the U.S. media spectacle around the case — including images of Strauss-Kahn handcuffed and escorted by police outside a precinct house — as an alleged violation of his right to a presumption of innocence.
Socialist party boss Martine Aubry said she was "stunned" over TV images of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs. In France, suspects are usually shielded from view in such circumstances.
"His close friends cannot believe that he is guilty," said fellow Socialist Jean-Christophe Cambadelis. "We're hoping that the trauma, in one form or another, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn we hope, will be surmounted."
Socialist party leaders insisted their internal electoral calendar would not change: its candidates have until early summer to make their bids known before a nominating convention in the fall.
French media have overlooked the infidelities of politicians for years: Many journalists are said to have known President Francois Mitterrand had a daughter out of wedlock, but kept quiet because it was seen as private.
In 2007, Banon appeared on a televised French dinner-chat show and described an incident with a politician — whose name was bleeped out — who had tried to forcibly have sexual relations with her during an interview with him. She and the show host both later acknowledged it was Strauss-Kahn.
"It finished really, really badly because we ended up fighting ... I kicked him. He unbuttoned my bra, tried to open my jeans," Banon said then. Asked why she didn't file suit, she replied that she "didn't want to be known until the end of my life as the girl who had a problem with a politician."
The Associated Press is identifying Banon as an alleged victim of sexual assault because she has gone public with her account.
On his blog, regional Socialist official Gilles Savary wrote that France simply has a different take on sexual free-wheeling, insisting it as a private matter — as long as it's not immodest, and among consulting adults.
"To tell the truth, everybody knows Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine, who sets himself apart from many others with a propensity not to hide it," wrote Savary, a regional councilor near southwestern Bordeaux. "In puritanical America, seeped with a rigorous Protestantism, monetary affairs are tolerated far more than pleasures of the flesh."
Strauss-Kahn, who has homes in France and the United States, has long bridged those two worlds, and three of his four daughters have addresses in New York. His wife — former TV journalist Anne Sinclair — was born in the United States.
According to the 2000 biography "Les Vies Cachees de DSK" by Vincent Giret and Veronique Le Billon, Sinclair was one of France's highest-paid journalists before she gave up her job to avoid a possible conflict of interest when her husband became a government minister in 1997. The biography says Strauss-Kahn's wife is also a wealthy heiress, whose grandfather Paul Rosenberg was a prominent modern art dealer before the Second World War.
Strauss-Kahn himself makes an annual tax-free salary as head of the IMF of $420,930, plus an annual "scale of living" allowance of $75,350, according to a 2007 IMF press release. French newspapers have inventoried the couple's real estate holdings, which reportedly include a six-room apartment in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement; a 240-square-meter apartment on the luxurious Place des Vosges; a home in Marrakech, and a house in Washington.
Elaine Ganley, Angela Charlton, Masha Macpherson, Oleg Cetinic, Jeffrey Schaeffer and Greg Keller contributed from Paris.