The French magazine Le Point reported that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s last words, before being hauled off the Air France AF023 flight to Paris by two New York Port Authority detectives, were addressed to one of the air hostesses “loudly and openly” and in front of witnesses: “Quel beau cul!”.
Admittedly this utterance sounds better in French than in English. Camille Clovis Trouille (1889-1975) - a minor part-time painter and decorator, Surrealist and anti-clerical – used a pun on that kind of French remark to name his painting of a naked woman’s buttocks: “Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta!”. And Kenneth Tynan used both that title and that painting in his 1969 Broadway show, featuring extensive scenes of total nudity, that at the time became the longest running and is said to be still today the sixth-longest running in Broadway’s history.
Nevertheless, the remark is not endearing or charming, but gross and aggressive. DSK is sub judice and the courts will decide whether he is guilty and of what. But there can be no doubt, regardless of the courts’ eventual ruling – especially if it is the case that his line of defence is the consensual nature of sexual acts with the Sofitel chambermaid - that he is “a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command”. These are the words used by a colleague of his, with whom he had an affair, in a letter she addressed to the IMF Executive Board in 2008. A public external enquiry on that case cleared DSK because there had been “no harassment” but ruled that he had made “a serious error of judgment”. The Fund lacked - and still lacks - “clear and protected arrangements for reporting possible misconduct” and “clear disciplinary arrangements” to deal with it if it occurred.
Unfortunately, DSK’s latest little error of judgment has already had the most devastating consequences, not only for him and his family but for the IMF, which in the three and a half years of his tenure he had steered to a larger scale and to a greater role in global governance during the greatest world economic crisis since 1929; for the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone and the future of the euro; for the French presidential elections in which he had been a frontrunner who could have led the Socialists to their first victory since Mitterand’s 1988 re-election.
DSK is a Keynesian, like his Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard (from MIT). He persuaded IMF shareholders to raise $500bn additional capital thus trebling its resources. At the emergency summit of G-20 leaders on 15 November 2008 he proposed, and obtained, a large scale global fiscal stimulus of the order of 2% of global GDP, and encouraged a parallel monetary expansion. He opposed calls for an early exit strategy (for instance by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet), which he viewed as premature, and above all a collective exit strategy considered by the G-8 of 8-10 July 2009 at L’Aquila, which would have been disastrous.
He junked the old “Washington Consensus” that had inspired IMF operations in the 1980s in Latin America and in the 1990s in the post-socialist transition economies. He was well aware of debt sustainability issues, but was also very conscious of the impact of fiscal austerity on poverty and distribution. Under his leadership there was concern for gradualism, and for client countries’ ownership of stabilization programmes. He aimed higher than he could reach, just to make progress; an instance would be his argument for a new role for the IMF as a global Lender of Last Resort, which was inappropriate, for which he never really developed a case and let drop.
His revolution was unfinished. He was acknowledged to be a very good diplomat, who listened to both North and South; was trusted by the Greeks, was the only non-German with an influence on Angela Merkel.
He is virtually irreplaceable. The problem with Christine Lagarde is not the Tapie affair, of which she is likely to be cleared on 10 June, but – as Martin Wolf puts it in the FT of 25 May – “her limited knowledge of economics”. DSK’s letter of resignation as IMF Managing Director ended, incongruously, with the words “Au revoir”. Sadly, he clearly meant “Adieu”.