Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once tipped to become the next president of France, went on trial yesterday accused of being at the centre of a vice ring that hired prostitutes for orgies in which up to eight women had sex with the disgraced politician in scenes of "carnage".
Four years after a New York sex scandal that shattered his political ambitions and cost him his job as head of the International Monetary Fund, 65-year-old Mr Strauss-Kahn was back in the media glare as he arrived in a black limousine at a court in the northern French city of Lille.
He appeared on edge as he sat, arms folded, while Bernard Lemaire, the presiding judge, read out the charges against him and 13 co-accused, a colourful cast of characters including luxury hotel managers, a lawyer, a former police commissioner, and a brothel owner nicknamed "Dodo the Pimp".
"You are accused of aiding and abetting the prostitution of seven persons between March 29, 2008, and October 4, 2011, and of hiring and encouraging the prostitution of these same persons," the judge said.
Procedural applications, such as a request by a lawyer for the former prostitutes involved for hearings to take place behind closed doors, dominated the first day of the trial.
Mr Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK in France, faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of €1.5m if convicted of organising the orgies in Paris, Washington and Lille that have been dubbed "carnage on a pile of mattresses".
One of the prostitutes questioned during the investigation described walking in on one of Mr Strauss-Kahn's orgies.
"I was shocked. I didn't want to get involved in this carnage," Sandrine Vandenschrik told police. She described a scene at the Murano Hotel in Paris in March 2009, when she entered a room to see Mr Strauss-Kahn being "taken care of" by seven or eight women. Ms Vandenschrik said she told police that if Mr Strauss-Kahn said he did not know the women were prostitutes "he really wants us to believe he's naive and takes us for idiots".
Mr Strauss-Kahn's high-flying career as the head of the IMF came crashing down in May 2011, when Nafissatou Diallo, a chambermaid at a New York hotel, accused him of sexual assault.
After his arrest and brief stay in the notorious Riker's Island prison, criminal charges were later dropped and the case settled in a civil suit for an undisclosed sum, reported to be more than €1m.
But Mr Strauss-Kahn was soon embroiled in another scandal back home, this time regarding the alleged prostitution ring in northern France and Belgium. During the trial over the "Carlton affair" - named after the hotel in Lille said to have housed some of the sex parties with prostitutes - the judge must decide whether Mr Strauss-Kahn was merely a "libertine" who took part in orgies organised by his entourage in the city, as well as Paris and Washington, or whether he was aware the women participating were paid prostitutes.
Mr Strauss-Kahn's lawyers have argued that he had no idea who the women he was dealing with were because "they were all naked at the time".
But investigating magistrates contend that their age and appearance "left little doubt as to their activities", and that Mr Strauss-Kahn was not just the "king of the party" but a "linchpin" of a prostitution ring.
Mr Strauss-Kahn's lawyer, Richard Malka, has branded the case a "relentless" and "absurd witch hunt", saying that the decision to go to trial was based on "ideological, political, moral" considerations, but certainly not "judicial" ones.
The defence is expected to argue that the case has been hijacked by civil plaintiffs bent on abolishing prostitution, which is legal in France even if criminalising clients has been mooted.
The first to take the stand today will be the Carlton Hotel's former public relations manager, Rene Kojfer, who is accused of organising prostitutes for "well-connected men".
He is also accused of organising publicity for another accused, a convicted pimp who owns a string of brothels near the French border in Belgium, where rules are more lax.
Dominique Alderweireld, nicknamed "Dodo the Pimp" is accused of procuring prostitutes for Kojfer, some of whom were allegedly employed at the orgies attended by Mr Strauss-Kahn. The former IMF chief, who denies all charges, is not expected to take the stand until next week.