On the evening of May 11th I found myself briefly barricaded inside my building by a red and white do-not-pass tape strung awkwardly around various sidewalk posts and poles. Fire-trucks, ambulances and police cars clogged the street. Noise and lights blaring. Smoke rising over the little park down around the corner, and a ladder extended five stories up, probing skyward.
In the serenely beautiful enclave of la Place des Vosges, a square built by Louis 14th to house his circle anno 1605, a three century old mansard roof was engulfed in flames. The firefight took hours; fortunately no one was injured. Near midnight, a pair of firemen could still be seen against the cobalt sky, clambering in the roof timbers, hacking at the remaining structure. By then the whole area was cordoned off, requiring wide detours. Danger from the rubble. There was a terrible stink in the air.
Plenty of Parisian ‘people’ (the French word for pop notables) as well as the more retiring very rich live here today. Jack Lang, cultural pillar of the Socialist Party, lives on the square. And Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for example, owns a spacious apartment at # 45. The fire was at # 22, above bustling Café Hugo.
Next day, neighborhood tongues wagged. Could this have been a misfired (so to speak) arson attempt, aimed at former finance minister and current IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn? The polls had the as yet cagily undeclared candidate far in front of any other candidate on the left or right. A fair shoe-in for the bookmakers, despite some recent slippage due to his long absence from France and a perceived un-Socialist lifestyle. DSK protested a media smear campaign–the photo of him climbing into an associate’s Porsche, the accusation of buying $38,000 DC suits–silly things even at the time. In hindsight, these little issues look dusty and quaint as old hats in a thrift shop. But DSK was stung enough to predict that someone might go so far as to bribe a woman to claim he had raped her in a parking lot!
Four days after the fire, on May 15th, DSK was arrested for sex crimes, pulled from his first-class berth on Air France and remanded to Riker’s Island. No need to retell the story here, right up to today, when a second judge confirmed indictment and released him on bail over the strenuous protest of the prosecution. And plenty of ‘people’ have given their two cents on whether DSK is the victim of an outrageous plot, or guilty as hell. No need to weigh in on that now. (Although it’s hard to resist.)
What is worth recording is the confusion and anguish swirling unabated in the neighborhood–in neighborhoods all over France. We thought we knew you, DSK. A public figure all his life. Visible! Yes, there was the kerfuffle with the fellow-economist over at the IMF, but he apologized decently for the affair, maybe there was even love in it, for heaven’s sake. A man’s private life, after all. What counted was his brilliance, leadership, principles of enlightened socialism. Even if you weren’t a socialist, you might prefer DSK the professional deep thinker and problem solver over President Sarkozy, the egocentric cock-of-the-walk whose ‘bling-bling’, Rolex and Foucault lifestyle is seen as tarnishing the image, or is it the self-image, of France.
Be careful what you wish for.
Today comes a new poll, just released. When asked who they want to see lead the party in 2012, self-declared PS sympathizers now place Francois Hollande at the head with 30%–and Strauss-Kahn stubbing his heels, at 27%. Nearly neck and neck. Is this a comfort to the man wearing an electronic bracelet in Manhattan? Along with knowing that a full 57% of French people (according to LExpress, yesterday) think him the victim of a conspiracy? These are the people down in the street, with no access to the mansard roofs. But if they looked up, they could see one set of rafters burned bare.
A French friend yesterday was nearly in tears, she had all her political hopes pinned on DSK. ‘I am in mourning,’ she said. ‘He was like a father-figure to me.’
Whatever the facts of the present case–or of other accusations of sexual violence beginning to crowd the yellow-hued press–we are learning a lot more than we ever wanted to know about Dad. His call-girls. His sex-clubbing. His cronyism and his own gang’s manipulations of the media. (That could be another entry.) His temper and voracious sense of entitlement, nourished by those who feed off him. (The ancient Greeks had a word for it, even wrote plays about it. ) This kind of unwanted knowledge explodes sometimes in families. Sometimes in societies. At first there is shock, denial, fervent allegiance, tears. At first.
For now, all of a sudden, people here are saying ‘all Paris knew’ about this, that and the other tidbit of DSK’s comportment. Who is ‘all Paris?’ then? The lucky few living in the town palaces that were designed by a royal couple with the express purpose of permitting the aristocracy to hobnob without having to expose themselves to the common folk, outside the magic square?