Sorry still the hardest word for Strauss-Kahn

WHEN Dominique Strauss-Kahn appeared on French television to speak about his sexual encounter with a New York hotel maid, ”sorry” was not what he wanted to say.

The former head of the International Monetary Fund, who has lost both that position and his place as the favourite in next year’s French presidential elections over the scandal, did admit that his part in the encounter was ”a moral failure” he would regret his whole life.

”What happened was not only inappropriate … it was a fault: a fault towards my wife, my children, my friends, but also a fault towards the French people, who placed in me their hope for change.”

But while his scripted words were placatory, his angry, closed face was not. Mr Strauss-Kahn seemed to be talking of a strategic political error rather than expressing personal contrition. For much of his soft-pedal interview on Sunday night – with a TV journalist who is a close friend of his wife’s – Mr Strauss-Kahn seemed to radiate controlled rage. He strongly denied there had been any violence in his exchange with hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, who had accused him in May of forcing her into oral sex after she arrived to clean his hotel room. New York prosecutors dropped the case after finding Ms Diallo, 32, had lied about her life story.

Mr Strauss-Kahn said there had been no sign of injury on either herself or him. ”[She] lied about everything . . it’s in the prosecutor’s report.”

He said the same thing about French writer Tristane Banon, also 30 years his junior, who has claimed he pounced on her like ”a rutting chimpanzee” when she went to interview him in 2003. Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62, has reportedly admitted that he tried to kiss her but said on Sunday that the assault claims were ”imaginary and slanderous”.

The scandal has reverberated. The US justice system was embarrassed when the case fell over because it had paraded a handcuffed Mr Strauss-Kahn in a walk of shame for TV cameras. For Mr Strauss-Kahn, the scandal means he can ”obviously” no longer be a presidential candidate in 2012, he said. Left-wing daily Liberation published a survey in which more than half of voters hoped that Mr Strauss-Kahn, formerly seen as likely to unseat centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, would bow out of the race.

For French Socialists, the scandal has knocked out their best hope. This might boost far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her new-look Front National.

For French society, the scandal has meant a debate over tolerance of the sexual privacy of public figures, and over the question of whether droit du seigneur – the mythic right of a lord to bed women in his fiefdom – lives on in the behaviour of some of its powerful men. For observers of human nature, it has been wry evidence of a related phenomenon: the ageing Lothario’s dogged belief in his own eternal irresistibility.

First published in The Age.