Though the events are well known, the four-episode series, produced by French director Jalil Lespert, cannot fail to shock on several levels. At the time of the rape accusation, Strauss-Kahn, a former French economy minister, was at a career high. He was running for the French presidential elections as the Socialist candidate against the hugely unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy. Blessed with a razor-sharp intelligence, good looks and a series of beautiful, supportive wives (he had been married three times up to that point), Strauss-Kahn was a media darling and widely regarded as a shoo-in for the presidency.
Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinean maid, brought this golden world crashing down around him with her accusation of sexual assault at Room 2806, the suite in the Sofitel hotel where Strauss-Kahn had stayed for some days. The case proved revelatory in many ways. Apparently, Straus-Kahn was a well-known womaniser – a famous radio jockey even joked about it ahead of an interview with Strauss-Kahn – and serially unfaithful to his wives (something they accepted, apparently). Lespert recreates his charmed life and the nudge-and-wink culture that made Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour acceptable – and even enhanced his reputation. Several of his party and work colleagues – including women – spoke with indulgent approval of Strauss-Kahn’s predilections, suggesting that they were incidental to his brilliance. He was, after all, a Frenchman in every sense of the word, was the wry verdict.
A private life that flouts accepted mores of marital fidelity is one thing; sexual harassment is another. Diallo’s testimony, which Lespert captures in detail in her own words, suggests that his womanising may have not always been consensual. What follows demonstrated the ingrained institutional bias against rape victims, where the first principle is scepticism, especially when the accused is as powerful as Strauss-Kahn and the accuser is an African-origin menial worker. This much was clear from the New York District Attorney’s handling of the case. Diallo was grilled multiple times by prosecutors – all men – about her version of events, but Strauss-Kahn's version – that he and the maid engaged in consensual sex – was never contested. He was not even questioned about the serious injuries she sustained.
It is possible that the public may have believed the prosecutors, had a young French journalist not emerged to accuse Straus-Kahn of attempted rape some years before. Her testimony was telling. As with #MeToo accusers who tumbled out of the closets in 2017, the journalist had not filed a case before because she felt no one would believe her account. There is a telling clip that shows her discussing her ordeal at a journalists’ dinner soon after the incident, but her listeners are smirking rather than expressing outrage at her predicament.
Diallo’s case was discredited on the unrelated grounds that she had lied in her asylum application for US citizenship and had a boyfriend who was jailed for being a drug dealer, which the judge duly dismissed. That brought the curtains down on the scandal but Strauss-Kahn’s career was blown. He had resigned from the IMF immediately after his arrest and bowed out of the elections, his place taken by Francoise Hollande (who was to entertain us some years later with his own drama of sexual peccadillos).
Strauss-Kahn slipped out of public memory until Room 2806 reminded us of another scandal that reared its head in 2016. This time, Strauss-Kahn, by then an advisor to many African nations, was accused of procuring women for a prostitution ring in a Lille hotel (prostitution is legal in France but pimping is not). Though the evidence was thin it became clear that far from being a harmless Gay Lothario, Strauss-Kahn frequently availed himself of the services of prostitutes. The sleazy revelations that followed finally prompted his third wife to divorce him. The testimony of one of his victims confirmed his predilection for the kind of violent sex that Diallo had recorded in her statement.
Even viewed from the vantage point of the #MeToo movement Room 2806 makes for uncomfortable viewing. We may never know what really happened in that Sofitel suite. Diallo and Strauss-Kahn settled a civil suit she filed for $1.5 million, with which she set up a restaurant for city workers. But it also showed that when it comes to powerful men, women don’t stand much of a chance anyway.