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Oh the Gaul of it all as a shamed but shameless leader struts on

If only someone could bottle Dominique Strauss-Kahn's extravagant chutzpah, his breathtaking defiance, his near-pathological absence of shame or sober reflection, there would be bucketloads of cash to be made.

If only someone could bottle Dominique Strauss-Kahn's extravagant chutzpah, his breathtaking defiance, his near-pathological absence of shame or sober reflection, there would be bucketloads of cash to be made.

IF ONLY someone could bottle Dominique Strauss-Kahn's extravagant chutzpah, his breathtaking defiance, his near-pathological absence of shame or sober reflection, there would be bucketloads of cash to be made. Released from house arrest, knowing the whole world was now aware of his predatory ''rutting chimpanzee'' compulsions, of his DNA having been artfully deposited on a wall in his $3000-a-night Sofitel suite, what does the former IMF chief, and once French presidential hopeful, do? Curl up in foetal position? Scribble a prayer for forgiveness and arrange for its speedy lodging in the Wailing Wall? Renounce all room service forevermore? Of course not.

He resumes living it up. His liberation is just cause for lavish celebration: whiling away time at the Met, dining on pasta with black truffles, washed down with a Tuscan red, at an Upper East Side restaurant. And all the while millionaire journalist Anne Sinclair beaming by his side, so casually accepting - or at least eager to appear thus - of her husband, the sexual automaton. The whole thing is so exquisitely Gallic.

That's the paradox when it comes to cliches of national character: they just keep being reinforced. France versus America is a play for all seasons and the cast really couldn't be better this time around, with a bourgeois socialist, bloated with self-belief, and a scheming service industry employee in the starring roles. To be sure, the high-flyer and the hotel maid do represent some global themes: he, the increasingly integrated world economy and she, the mass movement of people displaced by war and poverty. But they mostly personify the quirks and flaws of their respective countries.

What's the maid's spectacular fall from noble victimhood if not a metaphor for the corruption of the American dream? A little more than a week ago she was a pious single mother, an African refugee doing it tough on the minimum wage or thereabouts. Now we know about the falsehoods in her asylum claim (she was not gang-raped as originally asserted), about the true state of her finances (her dodgy tax returns and bank accounts inflated with payments from dubious sources) and her lover on the inside (the boyfriend detained in an immigration jail after being arrested on drug charges). She's probably not quite what poet Emma Lazarus had in mind when beckoning the tired and poor to Manhattan's shores.

On the other hand, she brings considerable aspiration to the land of opportunity, in which there's many an opportunist. Aside from whether her encounter with Strauss-Kahn was consensual or coerced, she clearly appreciated its monetary potential. ''Don't worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing,'' she reportedly told her boyfriend, in relation to the rape complaint. The comment is stunning testament to her successful integration into the contemporary America of fast cash, subprime mortgages and six-figure civil suits.

This week's largely predictable twist came in the New York Post allegations that she had offered more intimate services to hotel guests. She is suing the paper (of course) and prosecutors lend the claim no support. But the idea interested me only in so far as it fitted with the theme of rugged individualism that kind of freelancing, I assume, would ultimately depress wages across the industry.

It also focused my mind on the liberties taken by Strauss-Kahn. He presumably didn't think a gratuity was necessary to induce a maid - 30 years his junior and too far out of his orbit to be dazzled by stardust - to drop her duster and pleasure him. (Or perhaps, being IMF chief, financial transparency was his main, and most convenient, concern. Let no one suggest he was oiling the black economy!) He appears to be wilfully blind to the laws of the market. Whether he's also blind to the criminal law remains an open question.

Strauss-Kahn has long believed he's God's gift. ''He has as many affairs in a month as you or I would have in our whole lives,'' one of his oldest advisers told a Time magazine reporter. Such men spring from all nationalities, but the French make it look natural. Austerity and self-denial are hardly classic French traits even in these wobbly economic times, the nation struggles to accept that belts must tighten. France still likes to see itself as the land of the long lunch and short working day, where farming subsidies and retirement pensions, black truffles and daytime diversions are a matter of entitlement.

Strauss-Kahn may avoid the hour of reckoning on this occasion. At the time of writing, his legal team was insisting that no plea bargain was on the table and given the ''very troubling'' questions about the maid's credibility I suspect he's not the one who'll blink.

But his fellow citizens look as if they're no longer so amused with their collective caricature. The latest poll showed that even if all charges against Strauss-Kahn are dropped, most French people don't want him to stand for president. The universal moral of the story is clear: keep exposing yourself in this way and you risk being taken to the cleaners.

Julie Szego is a senior writer.


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