After Weiner and Spitzer, Can France’s DSK Also Mount a Comeback?

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrives at Supreme Court in New York City, on June 6, 2011.
DON EMMERT / AFP / Getty Images

Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrives at Supreme Court in New York City, on June 6, 2011.

As many a politician knows, the descent from power can be brutally fast. And yet comebacks might be possible, at least judging by New York City politics, where both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are attempting to bury their previous sex scandals and win election this Fall, Weiner as mayor and Spitzer as comptroller. But what about former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Across the Atlantic, DSK, as he’s universally known in his native France, is at work plotting his own return from purgatory, having detonated his spectacular career—and the likelihood of becoming French President—in one fleeting encounter with a Manhattan hotel maid.

Strauss-Kahn, you might remember, was hauled off an Air France plane in May 2011, moments before takeoff from JFK Airport, after the maid, Nafissatou Diallo, reported he had sexually assaulted her in his hotel suite, as he was preparing to leave New York. He was briefly jailed on Rikers Island, and then confined to a large Manhattan townhouse he rented, until the attempted-rape charges against him fell apart and he flew home to Paris. The IMF had fired him, ending his four-year impressive tenure. And more crucially, his plan to become French President—for which he had been in poll position—was over. The affair deeply shook the IMF, left much of France thunderstruck and led to a cascade of other sex-related accusations back home

Two years later, Strauss-Kahn is still fuming over being subjected to an NYPD perp walk. “I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t understand why I was there,” he told CNN anchor Richard Quest on Wednesday night, in his first international interview since his arrest. “I was just understanding that something was going on that I didn’t control.”

And yet, despite his volcanic collapse, the former IMF chief might believe he has a second act ahead.

For weeks now, Strauss-Kahn has tiptoed back into an old familiar place: The klieg lights. In late May, he appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, where, in a dizzying contrast from his much-photographed perp walk, the paparazzi mobbed him on the red carpet for the premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s movie Only Lovers Left Alive (no irony there). He arrived with his new partner, 20 years his junior; his immensely rich wife Anne Sinclair, who had stood by him during his New York trial, left him last year. He was, said Le Parisian newspaper, “tout souris,” or all smiles.

Then last month, DSK appeared before French Senate to talk about matters for which he was once world-renowned: The economic crisis. For 75 minutes he laid out his views on Europe’s deep economic problems, in an appearance that divided even his own Socialist Party. “It was not me who invited him to the Senate,” sniffed the government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem later.

Rather than his sexual peccadilloes, DSK tried to focus on that EU crisis on Wednesday night, when he engaged in a one-hour, wide-ranging comeback interview on CNN. Strauss-Kahn said he believed Europe’s bailout had been mishandled, including under his watch at the IMF, when he helped form the so-called “troika” with the European Central Bank and the European Union, in order to salvage struggling EU economies from collapse. “I think most of them don’t really understand what globalization is,” he said of the leaders of the 28 EU countries. “If you want me to tell you that there is a crisis of leadership, there is,” he said, adding: “Europe is not only a currency, a market, it is a civilization.”

If nothing else, the interview might serve to remind the French why Strauss-Kahn was once their most likely next President. Two years after his social exile, his mastery (in fluent English) of the financial world stands in contrast to the wooden, anxious television style of François Hollande, whose ratings are at historic lows one year after he became the accidental president—the Socialist Party’s nominee after Strauss-Kahn’s exit.

But there was one overwhelming question which every CNN viewer surely wanted answered on Wednesday night: What on earth was Strauss-Kahn thinking in that New York hotel room in May, 2011? “Frankly, I don’t remember exactly,” Strauss-Kahn told CNN’s Quest, for a moment seeming at a loss to fathom how he’d blown up his life in one tawdry moment. “Something happened that was a private thing. What happened in a room is a private thing unless the prosecutors say they have found something to charge you,” he said. So, if the encounter with Diallo was consensual, why did she charge him with attempted rape? “Many hypotheses have been put in the press,” he said. “ It could be for money, it could be directed by secret services. The reality is that I have been charged for very, very difficult crimes, which at the end of the day the prosecutor in New York said ‘okay there’s nothing here anymore.’” Last December Strauss-Kahn settled a civil suit by Diallo out of court, not as an act of admission of guilt, he told CNN, but because “I decided to settle and go on with my life.”

One aspect of that life now is a deep reevaluation of his behavior, he says. Strauss-Kahn’s sexual excesses had been the grist of Paris gossip for years. And since his New York arrest, he has managed to avoid two trials in France, one on an attempted-rape charge by a young journalist dating to 2003 (dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired) and charges that he had engaged in group sex with prostitutes in the northern French city of Lille; prosecutors dropped those charges last week, for lack of evidence.

Amazingly, it took Strauss-Kahn hitting rock bottom to realize that he could not compartmentalize these two lives—sex and politics—forever. “People are not expecting this heterodox behavior with someone with public responsibility, he told CNN. “I had in mind that I had my private life, and I could do what I want so long as no one was hurt,” he said. “It was the wrong thing. I understand now that you can’t disentangle the two.”

So is there a comeback? Perhaps not in public service. “Politics is behind me,” he told Quest, himself no stranger to comebacks, having been arrested with meth in New York in 2008, and undergone drug rehabilitation before his return to CNN. Rather than electoral politics, Strauss-Kahn is rebuilding his life as an economist, addressing conferences and last month traveling to a commercial bank opening in South Sudan.

Indeed, there is no sign that the French would be nearly as forgiving as New York voters seem prepared to be with Weiner and Spitzer. “The American tradition is that you can always reinvent yourself, but this is not the French tradition,” Dominique Moisi, senior advisor to the French Institute for International Relations, and describes himself as having been a long-time friend of Strauss-Kahn, told TIME on Wednesday. Moisi said he had dinner with Strauss-Kahn in Washington just three weeks before his arrest in New York. And like millions of French voters, Moisi came away believing the French presidency was Strauss-Kahn’s to lose. “I was convinced he would run for President, and that he would win,” he said. “So I was totally shocked when he was arrested.”

Two years on, Strauss-Kahn remains, says Moisi, an “embarrassment” to the Socialists. And for at least half the voters—women—he is fatally flawed, despite his moves towards a professional makeover. “Women are definitely not going to forget and forgive,” he says. “I knew he was some kind of vulgar Don Giovanni, but I didn’t expect him to go that far.”

With no political future, then, Strauss-Kahn is doing the best he can. “He’s taking small steps, an indirect approach, using his competence as an economist to rebuild his image,” Moisi says. “He is maneuvering to get back some of his honor.”