Riding high in opinion polls, IMF Managing Director and veteran French Socialist Party heavyweight Dominique Strauss-Kahn was until last weekend on course to sweep Nicolas Sarkozy out of office in next year's presidential elections. But the one event that his slick communications team had not allowed for, and to which they admit having no answer to, was his arrest in New York on sex assault charges. Karl Laskereports on the grounded spin strategists.
They form a group of high-flying communications experts, all working for the world's fifth-largest marketing and communications agency, Euro RSCG. Once dubbed, tongue in cheek, by the French media as ‘the Four Muskateers', they had envisaged just about everything - except for the scenario of the cataclysmic fall from grace of the man they were championing to become France's next president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
They are Stéphane Fouks, Euro RSCG Executive co-Chairman, Ramzi Khiroun, a freelance consultant for Euro RSCG employed fulltime as spokesman for the Lagardère media and armements group, Gilles Finkelstein, head of research studiesat Euro RSCG Worldwide and Anne Hommel, assigned as Strauss-Kahn's press attaché.
Stripped of any communications armaments with which to affront the scandal crisis, Strauss-Kahn's advisors can only echo those comments of his close political circle at the French Socialist Party, principally the MPs Pierre Moscovici, Jean-Marie Le Guen and Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, who have all said the alleged sexual assault of a maid at the Sofitel hotel in New York on Saturday does not fit the man they know. "There are people who cannot believe it, because they know him," said a Euro RSCG source, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that the US justice system "is violent and painful". (click here for full official text of complaints filed and here for Mediapart's coverage of his arrest).
"We have just one object, we're helping a friend," he continued. "It is the American justice system that will decide his future from every point of view. American justice will clear or convict him. The problem of the Socialist Party is completely secondary for us. We don't care about it."
Officially, there is only one precedent in his private life which his advisors were called on to deal with, although it was not a judicial case. This was Strauss-Kahn's affair with Piroska Nagy, a married Hungarian economist with the IMF, and which was made public in 2008. With the long build-up to the 2012 French presidential elections already begun, an incident concerning his private life was, for his advisors, predictable, if not certain. The IMF set up an internal inquiry during which she accused him of "abusing his position" to coerce her into the relationship. An IMF internal enquiry was opened, and Euro RSCG communications consultants were sent to Washington to handle Strauss-Kahn's defence campaign in the media. He was eventually cleared of misconduct by the IMF, (she was made redundant by the IMF).
Strauss-Kahn, 62, recently chose, undoubtedly advised, to open up a little to the media about his private life, in an interview with French television channel Canal Plus and, more notably, in an off-the-record chat with journalists from French daily Libération. Following Strauss-Kahn's arrest, Libération chose to publish what he said, infuriating his advisors, during which he spoke of how he "liked women" and referred to "photos of swinging parties that have never come out."
According to the Libération article, he above all claimed that he feared becoming the victim of a plot, suggesting a scenario whereby a woman might accuse him, "for 500,000 or a million euros", of raping her in a car park. "One element of his force is not to have lied about himself," commented the Euro RSCG source.
His team of communications advisors were involved in anticipating, clearing the road ahead of mines. A book dedicated to the IMF chief and still undeclared presidential candidate, written by Michel Taubmann and entitled Le Roman vraide Dominique Strauss-Kahn (The true novel of Dominique Strauss-Kahn), appeared to fit their tactical plan. "Taubman presenting Strauss as a grand seducer is a bit wild," commented a Socialist Party official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "Physically, he's no Apollo [...] All these communication elements leaves one with the impression, all the same, that sex is the problem in his life."
During a visit to Paris at the end of April, pictures emerged in the media of Strauss-Kahn cruising around Paris in a top-of-the-line Porsche, Panamera saloon owned by the Lagadère group. It fuelled criticism of his wealthy detachment from the Socialist Party grass roots, coming shortly after the publication by Terra Nova, a think tank close to him, of a study claiming that the working class is no longer the electoral base of the left.
But it also raised questions about the ambiguous nature of his political network. Ramzi Khiroun, who has the use of the 150,000-euro Porsche in question, is an advisor for Strauss-Kahn and a consultant for Euro RSCG, while also being employed fulltime as spokesman and member of the management committee of the Lagardère group, led by Arnaud Lagardère, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's close entourage.
"For the Porsche, you have 89% percent of Socialist voters who [just] shrug their shoulders," said the source at Euro RSCG, dismissing the importance of the pictures. However, that was not the opinion at Socialist Party headquarters, where there was concern about the make-up of those leading Strauss-Kahn's now abandoned presidential campaign.
"Do you find it normal that Khiroun is paid by Euro RSCG and Lagardère?" asked a party official, again speaking on condition of anonymity. "And when he must choose a communications agency, how does he go about it? And how can one explain that Anne Hommel is paid by Euro RSCG when she is the FMI chief's press attaché?"
The communications agency naturally had a ready answer to that: "When things take a certain amount of time and people have to be taken care of, it's [Strauss-Kahn's wife] Anne Sinclair who pays," commented a Euro RSCG executive, who asked not to be named. "When Ramzi Khiroun was recruited by Lagardère, [RSCG co-Chairman] Stéphane Fouks sought Arnaud Lagardère's agreement to be able to continue to pay him so that he could still follow up with his clients and to continue to work with him as an advisor. He spoke with both of them about it." Thus it was that Khiroun was on call for Fouks and Strauss-Kahn, for whom his trips to Washington were paid. Euro RSCG insist that it is Anne Sinclair who pays the agency for the services.
The legal situation of Khiroun's freelancing could become a subject of concern for Lagardère shareholders, for whom the detachment of a senior executive to serve Strauss-Kahn could be interpreted as illegal. Concerning Euro RSCG, the situation was reportedly the subject of an official approval.
It wasn't until Tuesday that the ruling conservative-right UMP party gave anything other than brief comment upon Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York on Saturday. First to break silence was French Prime Minister François Fillon, who told a meeting of UMP Members of Parliament: "If the events for which Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accused of were to be proved true, we will be before a very grave act that allows no excuse." Some interpret the relative discretion shown by the French President's office as due to the criss-crossing world of people close to both Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn.
In video footage published on French news site LePoste.fr in December 2009, President Sarkozy can be seen joking with a meeting of UMP party faithful about how he had decided to become "the director of human resources" of the Socialist Party. "Strauss-Kahn?" he asks, "off to Washington." Referring to former socialist bigwig Bernard Kouchner, who accepted to become his foreign minister, he continued: "Kouchner? With us," before mentioning former socialist minister Jack Lang: "Lang? With me."
In an interview published shortly before Strauss-Kahn's arrest on the website of French news weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, Sarkozy's press attaché Frank Louvrier described Ramzi Khiroun as "very judicious". Referring to Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn, he added: "We often talk together about our two mentors, and their similarities."