News | World

Arrest of IMF chief, a top presidential contender, shakes France’s Jews

Until his arrest in New York on charges of sexual assault, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was seen as a leading contender for the French presidency. WTO via CC)

PARIS (JTA) — Shock waves continue to ripple throughout France as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, considered the likely Socialist Party candidate to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy in French presidential elections next year, remains in a New York City jail on charges of sexual assault.

Saturday’s arrest of Strauss-Kahn appears to significantly change the political playing field in France, as some recent polls had showed that the 62-year-old head of the International Monetary Fund was the most popular among those considered to be possible presidential contenders.

It also represents a particularly harsh blow for many in France’s Jewish community.

Strauss-Kahn — popularly known by his initials, DSK — has been outspoken about his Jewish identity in a country where politicians typically are mum about their religion. He also has expressed feelings of attachment to Israel in the past, all the while maintaining a measured distance from actively participating in Jewish institutions, according to Jewish leaders.

“We lost a friend,” said Rabbi Michel Serfaty, president of the Jewish-Muslim Friendship of France. “It’s true that the Jewish community has a friend in Sarkozy,” as well as among other Socialist Party leaders, “but with DSK there was no doubt he was a member of the community, interested in Israel, that we have lost.”

Among the large Jewish community in Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris where Strauss-Kahn was a former mayor, the emotion was palpable.

“It is very painful for us,” said Marc Djebali, vice president of the Sarcelles Jewish community. “I know him well. I’ve even seen him seduce a woman, but it was always with gentleness. He is someone who is very warm, and we never felt any problems of violence from him.”

Strauss-Kahn has pleaded not guilty to felony counts including sexual assault and attempted rape. He was denied bail Monday by a Manhattan court and is in New York’s Rikers Island prison complex awaiting a grand-jury hearing.

The charges were filed following accusations by a 32-year-old chambermaid at a Sofitel hotel in Manhattan. The chambermaid said that when she entered to clean Strauss-Kahn’s room Saturday afternoon, he came out of the bathroom naked, pushed her onto the bed, assaulted her and forced her to perform oral sex, according to Paul Browne, deputy New York City police commissioner.

In France, Strauss-Kahn reportedly has a reputation for “running after skirts,” and he may face an additional sexual assault investigation here, where journalist Tristane Banon is now expected to press charges against him for an incident she claims took place in 2002, according to her lawyer.

While some Strauss-Kahn supporters are asking whether the expected front-runner for the presidency was a victim of conspiracy, Strauss-Kahn himself speculated in a recent interview with the left-wing daily Liberation that he might face three particular difficulties if he were to run for president: “Money, women and the fact I am Jewish,” he said.

While some are concerned that the incident could unleash anti-Semitic sentiment in France, Marc Knobel, a researcher at the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF, said he had not found any significant reference to Strauss-Kahn’s religion in connection with his arrest.

On the contrary, “everybody knew he was Jewish, and that didn’t prevent him from being the most popular candidate in France,” said Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF. “And that says something about France. Today we find it completely normal that a Jew can become president.”

Nevertheless, earlier this year a member of Sarkozy’s UMP party was accused of alluding to Strauss-Kahn’s Jewish roots and causing a political row when he said on French radio that the IMF leader “doesn’t embody the image of France, the image of rural France that we like, and to which I’m attached.”

With the popular IMF leader off France’s political playing field, the new head of the far-right National Front Party, Marine Le Pen, is among those who are likely to profit, political analysts say. The prospect alarms many French Jews, who often consider the National Front to be anti-Semitic, though Le Pen has tried to project a new image for the party, which was founded by her father.

Jean Viard, senior analyst at the Paris political research center Cevipof, said that if Strauss-Kahn is convicted, it will both help Sarkozy in the 2012 election and “it increases the chances Marine Le Pen will make it to the second round of presidential elections.”

“It will very strongly shake up the political landscape,” he said.