Most people will have only the haziest recollection of the fallout that occurred after the French presidential hopeful and then head of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a room attendant in a New York hotel in 2011. That allows the Netflix documentary Room 2806: The Accusation to possess all the qualities of a slick political thriller. Who will be believed? The immigrant, hotel cleaner, a single parent living in a flat in the Bronx or the globally powerful, immensely rich politician?
This tense, four-part documentary has astonishing material to work with. There is plenty of CCTV footage, filmed from the ceiling, of chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo making her way to the presidential suite, and later, visibly distressed, being shepherded by her supervisor to a subterranean network of shabby staff offices in the bowels of the building, away from the gilded foyer, where she wipes away tears and recounts how she has been assaulted by Strauss-Kahn as she cleaned his rooms.
There is the 911 call made by a hotel supervisor on behalf of Diallo and CCTV footage of Strauss-Kahn swiftly checking out of the hotel. There are detailed interviews with Diallo explaining her reluctance to go to the police, and outlining how the events of that day changed her life. There are dramatic contributions from the New York police and prosecutors, recreating the moment when Strauss-Kahn was arrested on board an Air France jet that was about to take off from JFK for Paris, and taken to jail in New York.
But the most extraordinary element of this documentary is the pre-Harvey Weinstein, pre-#MeToo indulgent response from fellow politicians and French voters. Strauss-Kahn mounted a strong defence, maintaining to this day that the incident was consensual. In New York, some of his IMF colleagues merely shrugged, concluding: “What do you expect? He’s French.”
In France, his supporters were forgiving and former Socialist party ministers backed him robustly, and continue to defend him 10 years on. Interviewed for the programme, Jack Lang, the former minister of culture, asks: “Et alors? Et alors? Should the president not be a sensual man?”
Quite what happened in room 2806 remains contested. Although (spoiler alert) the sexual assault charges were dropped, Diallo won a substantial but undisclosed settlement after launching a civil action. But the case triggered reports of less-contested episodes of so-called sensual behaviour. DSK in a car with prostitutes in Paris’s notorious Bois de Boulogne; DSK behaving aggressively to a prostitute at a late-night swingers party organised for him in provincial France; DSK assaulting a 23-year-old journalist who was trying to interview him.
And yet the benign approach to Strauss-Kahn endures. Why would he feel the need to assault women, a colleague asks. “He is a charming, brilliant, intelligent, occasionally funny man. Why would he need to resort to that?” A French television pundit asks why anyone finds this shocking – male politicians’ fondness for sex is just part of the nation’s culture.
The French have long expressed impatience at the British tabloid obsession with the private lives of politicians, affecting a high-minded lack of interest, insisting that they deserve a private life. In 2021, this notion of la vie privée simply looks like a brazen tactic designed to allow male French politicians to behave appallingly. If it’s impolite to ask questions, then are they not able to treat women as badly as they please? It’s hard to think of a female French politician who has had to argue that her private life should remain private. Meanwhile, President Mitterrand ran two households and two families, President Chirac was allowed a number of affairs (and was known to his security staff as “five minutes including shower”), and François Hollande raced through his partners.
This cultural indulgence is laid bare in Room 2806’s most shocking scene. Writer Tristane Banon recounts how she was assaulted by DSK in 2002, aged 23, after interviewing him for Paris Match, where she had recently started working as an intern. She remembers being surprised that he called her after the first interview to tell her he had more to say, and inviting her to a second meeting at a flat near the National Assembly. She remembers thinking it was odd that the flat was totally empty when she arrived, no books, no belongings, but turned on her recording device and began the interview.
DSK told her he wouldn’t speak unless she held his hand, and switched off the recorder. He tried to undress her, she tells the film-makers, they ended up fighting on the sofa, and she was able to flee from the flat. She says she didn’t think she would have been taken seriously if she had reported him to the police, but she did describe the attack five years later on a TV chatshow to a group mostly made up of middle-aged men.
The footage is unearthed and included. There is some hilarity as she describes how DSK tried to undo her bra and her jeans, and ignores her shouting rape. The host, Thierry Ardisson, says: “Oh, j’adore!” and the other guests laugh. Banon is smiling, but looks uneasy. No one expresses shock or anger.
“When I said ‘I love it!’, it’s because I can tell this is juicy, it’s going to create a buzz,” a semi-apologetic Ardisson explains to the documentary makers, recognising that a decade later this seems a decidedly weird response. “I’m not saying I love rape.” But he too shrugs, as if the story is barely worth remarking on. “Politicians that pounce on young women – it was common and still is. The libertinism and debauchery of the 18th century, that’s part of the culture.”
Watching Room 2806: The Accusation is confusing because it offers a snapshot of a patriarchal political order that is gently receding, but not fast enough. These attitudes remain absurdly outdated yet absolutely current.
Strauss-Kahn declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and has no criminal record, the filmmakers note. He has always insisted the encounter with Diallo was consensual. Since resigning from the IMF, he has taken on advisory roles in South Sudan, Russia and Ukraine and married for a fourth time. Diallo’s reputation was comprehensively smeared by Strauss-Kahn’s defence team: she was forced to leave her home and was unable to return to her job. Still, she says she gets some faint satisfaction in seeing the role she played in persuading others to come forward, in a mini wave of fury, foreshadowing the #MeToo movement.
Room 2806 is available on Netflix