It is a saga of money, fame and destitute women ferried to luxury locations for sex with powerful men, against a backdrop of economic deprivation and social misery. France has been shaken this week by harrowing testimony from a trial in Lille that not only put in the dock Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief and one-time French presidential hopeful, but also examined a much wider, depressing picture of poverty, women submitted to sex acts against their will and alleged pimps who referred to them as “livestock”.
In court, Strauss-Kahn, 65, the one-time hero of the French left, flatly denied the accusation he aided and abetted the prostitution of seven women – a charge of “aggravated pimping” that carries a 10-year prison sentence. He said he never knew or suspected there were any prostitutes among the many women brought to him by regional French businessmen friends for group sex, at what he termed “festive afternoons” in Europe and the US while he was head of the IMF.
But after three days of distressing testimony at a court in Lille – during which two prostitutes said Strauss-Kahn had subjected them to a sex act they did not want, and he self-assuredly explained his appetite for group sex and how his sexual style was “rougher than the average man” – France began considering the wider implications of the vast trial known as the “Carlton Affair”, after the luxury hotel in Lille in which Strauss-Kahn has never set foot, but which was at the centre of the first investigation.
The grim stories of what the newspaper Libération called “the terrible daily reality” of prostitutes that emerged in the broader Lille trial have shocked France and could push the socialist government, which claims it wants to “abolish” prostitution, to resurrect its plans to criminalise paying for sex – a law that got through parliament but has stalled in the senate.
The court is trying 13 men accused of pimping, including Strauss-Kahn. Most of the accused have no connection to the former IMF director. But two businessmen and a senior Lille police chief are accused of recruiting and paying prostitutes for “soirées” with Strauss-Kahn in order to curry favour with him. They deny the charges and say Strauss-Kahn never knew the women were paid because they kept it secret.
The testimony of the prostitutes, some of whom were sexually abused as children, has highlighted France’s social and economic problems.
Destitute and jobless in the area around the northern city of Lille which has been hit by some of France’s worst unemployment, some of the women went to work just over the Belgian border where brothels are tolerated by law.
Jade, who would later be recruited by businessmen to meet Strauss-Kahn in Belgium, Paris and the US, described how she worked at the Belgian “Club Madame” for Dominique Alderweireld, who refers to himself as Dodo the Pimp and is among the accused on trial. She said 12-13 women slept in bunk beds in a kitchen and had to be available at all times. She preferred a sleeping bag in the cellar, but slept dressed in her work outfit because if the front door rang in the night, they would all have to rush upstairs to be exhibited like “meat on hooks”. She described working day and night, once while “vomiting blood”.
Surveillance showed Dodo the Pimp referring to the prostitutes as “livestock”. In her cellar, Jade said she didn’t have a television so she didn’t recognise Strauss-Kahn when she was first taken to him, only seeing him in the press later and exclaiming: “That’s him with clothes on.” She spoke English, which came in handy at US immigration on a trip to see Strauss-Kahn in Washington, when border staff found it odd that the businessmen and Jade had come all that way for only a couple of nights.
Another detail in court was the seeming power trip of the businessmen who delivered women to Strauss-Kahn. “Ah, isn’t power great?” one businessman allegedly said during one “soirée” where Strauss-Kahn was present. Another, Fabrice Paszkowski – a Lille entrepreneur who Strauss-Kahn described as a very good friend – told one woman that he wanted to organise “giant orgies at the Elysée”, presumably when Strauss-Kahn became president of France.
One woman told the inquiry she felt women present at one group sex event were used as mere “receptacles”. Another woman participant, asked about others suffering during the group sex, told the inquiry: “It didn’t happen to me, but I didn’t need to do it to put food on the table.”