DSK Wife Anne Sinclair and the Over-Sexualized French Culture

Dominique Strauss-Kahn (right) and his wife, Anne Sinclair (left) leave court on June 6, 2011. Jason Decrow / EPA-Corbis

Anne Sinclair was as unimpeachable as Barbara Walters, as luscious as Diane Sawyer, as authoritative as both. For 13 years, from 1984 to 1997, she hosted 7/7, a show on TF1, France's main TV channel, where a prominent guest commented on the week's news. With her curly black hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and curves, she gave off an aura of relaxed sexuality. Her onscreen costume was a curiously intimate range of electric-blue mohair sweaters. The granddaughter of Picasso's art dealer Paul Rosenberg, she had family money—along with looks, clout, and gravitas. The fact that she was Jewish was pointed out in ways both sly and crude—the National Front called her "une pulpeuse charcutière casher" ("a juicy kosher pork butcher"). But she was the brightest of all French television stars.

She was, in a way, Oprah for French guys: a thinking minority woman with a great rack who could understand them and make them famous.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn had been trying to meet her for years. A young economist, he was a mystery guest on one of her shows in 1989. Though married, she fell under his charm within a few days. He told her about his childhood in Morocco, in Agadir, and his four children by two marriages. She had two of her own. He told her he played around, was "an incorrigible skirt chaser." She's reported to have said either "That's my problem, not yours," or "I'll change you." They married in November 1991. For years, whenever a friend brought up her husband's proclivities, she would throw her napkin down on the table and leave the lunch.

At first, Strauss-Kahn was known as Monsieur Sinclair. When, in 1997, he was named minister of finance and industry, she retired from the screen to avoid a conflict of interest and took an administrative job at the network. She bought a riad in Marrakech, where the French elite gather, and left TF1 in 2001. By the time Strauss-Kahn was named head of the IMF, he was considered to be one of the most brilliant economists in the world. He was going to run for president of France; polls showed that 65 percent of the French wanted him, and that Anne Sinclair was twice as popular as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. They would have been the first Jewish couple in the Élysée Palace, a "revanche," as some put it, "on the Dreyfus affair."

When the news broke that Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping a chambermaid in the Sofitel hotel in New York, it seemed like it must have been a setup. Strauss-Kahn was paranoid at the end of April, telling Le Monde that "the Russian" at the IMF wanted to see him go down before he quit, that Vladimir Putin was behind it, and Putin was close to Sarkozy.

Sinclair got a phone call on her way home from a birthday party, spent the night at her best friend's house, and flew to her husband's side in New York, where she put up the $1 million bail, the $5 million bond, and rented the $50,000-a-month house in Tribeca—all this possible because of her inheritance, said to be as much as $200 million.

In mid-July, a new sex scandal erupted. Eight years after the fact, a young writer named Tristane Banon accused Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape when she interviewed him for a book—on the mistakes men make—in 2003. At the time, her mother, Anne Mansouret, told her to say nothing. Now Mansouret herself has admitted to having had consensual but "brutal" sex with Strauss-Kahn, which gave rise to a new round of legal action among the women in his life. (Strauss-Kahn has denied wrongdoing in both the Sofitel and Banon cases.)

Anne Sinclair is too powerful a person and too intelligent to be a patsy, but her impeccable behavior is a puzzle on both sides of the Atlantic. Her best friend, Elisabeth Badinter, wife of former minister of justice Robert Badinter, publicly rejects the idea that fidelity should be a mandatory part of marriage. On the other hand, one Paris society woman says: "If she wanted him to be president, she should have put him on meds."

L'Express asked Sinclair in 2006 if she suffered from her husband's reputation as a "seducer." "No," she replied, "I'm rather proud of it." The word "proud" comes up again in the new book by Renaud Revel and Catherine Rambert, Madame DSK: Un Destin Brisé ("A Broken Destiny"). "Too proud to be jealous," they write, "she has applied herself with all her might to repress this feeling that she does not accept."

The reactions in France were revealing. The editor and founder of the magazine Marianne, Jean-François Kahn, declared of the Strauss-Kahn Sofitel case, "Ce n'est qu'un troussage de domestique" ("It's no more than tumbling a servant"). He had to resign from his own magazine. Jack Lang, minister of culture under François Mitterrand, said, "Il n'y a pas mort d'homme" ("No one got killed") and has kept a low profile ever since. The august Robert Badinter defended DSK with the same passion he had used to abolish the death penalty. Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, challenged him on TV: "You have not had one word of compassion for the victim."

You can't begin to understand Anne Sinclair unless you understand that France is a highly sexualized society, where even rejection has its own rules and rituals. Young women know how to play the game of what is called "seduction"; journalists sleep with important men because it's fun, they say, and keeps the sources happy. "I'd have done him," more than one woman says—"what a lark." Girls know how to deflect an advance with a joke or a metaphorical slap. The "droit de cuissage," or right to deflower any maiden, was a prerogative of men in power, and still is. The tumbling of servants has its own term: "les amours ancillaires." The events in Room 2806 provoked the same hilarity as the plays of Feydeau, in which the master does the maid between doorways while the mistress awaits in one room and the wife in another.

In a less sophisticated setting, only the man has fun: secretaries service the boss in factories and gas stations to keep their jobs. What is delightful Feydeau to those with the references is grim reality without the comforts of culture.

In France, women were not allowed to open bank accounts until 1943, or to vote until 1944. Abortion has been legal since 1975, but only after 343 women—including Jeanne Moreau, Simone de Beauvoir, and Catherine Deneuve—declared in Le Nouvel Observateur in 1971 that they had had abortions. It was called "Le Manifeste des 343 Salopes" ("The Manifesto of 343 Sluts"). The word salope is often used by a Frenchman in bed to excite the woman or himself. It is also used to designate what we'd call a real bitch.

Not everyone plays the game. Olivia Cattan, the head of the feminist organization Paroles de Femmes, mobilized a march for victims of male violence after Strauss-Kahn's arrest and was accused of premature overreaction. "It was immediately denounced as American hysteria," Cattan says. "At first, the 'Affaire DSK' seemed to take the lid off violence against women. Then it turned out that the chambermaid had lied, and that created an avalanche of cries that women are just whores and cannot be believed."

Catherine Millet, whose 2001 book The Sexual Life of Catherine M. detailed her love of orgies, cites the Marquis de Sade and Casanova as the founders of French sexual attitudes. She finds DSK coarse, hasty, and macho. "That doesn't stop him from being brilliant. But as for the facts, since it's about fellatio—the contact of the penis with the mouth—someone mean and brave would have bitten him where it hurts. As long as the rutting man isn't armed, he's vulnerable."

In Point de Vue Images du Monde, usually a monarchist magazine, the psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller pointed out that after news of an earlier DSK affair surfaced in 2008, Sinclair wrote on her blog, "We love each other as much as on the first day." He explained: "If these cloying words look odd in a scabrous context, does that mean one should question their sincerity? They show a separation between love and sensual pleasure, like the famous doctrine of the Sartre–de Beauvoir couple, who made a distinction between their 'necessary love' and 'contingent loves.' The wife of a ladies' man does not stay with him despite his infidelities, but because of them. She is proud of the phallic power of her spouse."

In the same issue, the editor Colombe Pringle interviewed the writer Laure Adler, who said: "Anne is the very embodiment of l'amour fou. Without Anne, there would be no DSK. She is the one who built him. Who allowed him to be confident and believe in his future. They have lived these last ten years in an opacity that no longer allowed her to see who her husband was … Dominique loves women. He picks them up, texts them, goes after them in hot pursuit. I've always heard about his harassing women, but never about aggression. It's not because you cheat on your wife that you don't love her!"

"We do not know one another, stop talking about me," Sinclair texted Adler.

Will this episode change things for women in France? The feminists rode the wave of empathy and then took the backlash. But a slow depth charge has been set off. A Freudian analyst says that as the weeks have gone by, more and more of his patients are spontaneously remembering violent sexual episodes from their past. A junior minister named Georges Tron who was in the habit of giving women reflexology sessions that allegedly ended in sex has since lost his job. This is the war between the Marquis de Sade and Simone de Beauvoir. Denis Olivennes, the head of Paris Match, Le Journal du Dimanche, and Europe1 radio, concludes: "In France, everything ends up as a concept."