Friday 20 April 2018

Power, sex, and money hold court in France

The lives of the ultra-rich and the links between politics and pimping are exposed in two extraordinary French trials, writes Clodagh Finn

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, daughter of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt

Clodagh Finn

It was part media circus, part secure bunker inside the basement courtroom in Lille, northern France, where the former head of the International Monetary Fund went on trial this week for pimping.

One Polish journalist, among the 300 or so assembled, hit the nail on the head when he said: "Sex, power and revelations - it will make a fantastic story."

And it was a story told in such detail in France this week that you couldn't but feel you were witnessing it yourself.

The Carlton Affair, named after the four-star hotel where sex parties are said to have taken place, is one of two extraordinary trials gripping a nation famous for its strict privacy laws.

Lurid tales of lunchtime orgies and the unsettling links between power, politics and pimping are coming to light in Lille, while in Bordeaux the French public is getting an unprecedented peek into the lives of the ultra-rich during court proceedings dubbed a judicial Dallas by the press.

The most mischievous scriptwriter could hardly have imagined the cast of characters in the dock.

In Lille, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man who might have been French president, a Belgian brothel owner nicknamed Dodo the Pimp, a barrister and several freemasons are among those who will give evidence over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, in Bordeaux, the story of unscrupulous friends accused of exploiting the frailty of the L'Oréal heiress (and France's richest woman) reads like a far-fetched soap opera.

The irony in all this is that, until recently, the private lives of public figures were strictly off-limits in France.

In the last decade that has started to change as a plethora of new celebrity magazines push out the boundaries. Last year, celebrity mag Closer exposed French president François Hollande's affair with Julie Gayet, but it was later fined in court for the scoop.

Now, however, it's a free-for-all as the details of a once-obscured world are exposed in the public domain.

The media is awash with every aspect of the trials and there is fevered debate about what - if anything - it might mean for France.

In the Carlton Affair, the focus has been on defining the difference between 'illegal' and 'immoral'. Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSK as he is known in France) and 12 others are charged with proxénétisme (or assisting in the prostitution of others), which carries a substantial jail term.

DSK admits attending group sex parties, but claims he didn't know the women were prostitutes, a point central to his defence.

"I challenge you to tell the difference between a naked prostitute and a naked woman of the world," his lawyer Henri Leclerc said in 2011 in a statement that has been quoted time and again.

DSK will take the stand next week, but the sordid reality of the sex parties for rich, powerful men was spelt out by one woman called 'Jade' who wept when she told the court that she turned to prostitution to feed her two children after her divorce.

"I was cornered. My daughter was seven months old. I opened the fridge. The fridge was empty. I told myself that I had to do something," she said.

She spoke of the lunchtime sex parties and how the women were considered the 'dessert'.

There will be more excruciating details over the next two weeks, but experts predict that the case against DSK is tenuous and he is unlikely to be convicted.

Meanwhile, in Bordeaux, the Bettencourt trial heard this week how photographer François-Marie Banier received millions of euro worth of gifts from Liliane Bettencourt, the 12th richest woman in the world.

Ten people are charged with taking advantage of the frailty of the L'Oréal heiress in a web of intrigue that, at one point, implicated former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Charges that Sarkozy solicited secret campaign donations were dropped, but the case has lost none of its sensational appeal.

Mrs Bettencourt's only daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, who is seldom seen in public, accused the chief suspect François-Marie Banier of a calculated destruction of her family.

He is now in the stand, countering claims that he was a hard-necked manipulator who could "sell stripes to a zebra".

Whether either trial will have a lasting effect on French privacy laws remains to be seen, but one surprising poll shows that French people still seem indifferent about what politicians do in private.

A poll in Le Parisien last Sunday found that 79pc of people thought Strauss-Kahn would have made a better president than François Hollande. They believed him immoral yet said France would be in better economic shape with him as leader.

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