PARIS -- After a series of sexual scandals that destroyed his political career and his marriage, it is hard to believe that there was anything private left about the life of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
So thought Laurent Joffrin, editor of the French weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, when he published a cover photo of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, on Feb. 21 alongside a headline heralding excerpts from a novel about the author's eight-month affair last year with an unnamed man who closely resembled the disgraced Socialist Party politician.
"How can one reveal the private life of someone whose private life is well known?" Mr. Joffrin mused during a recent interview in his Paris office. "That he had one more affair, what is the news in that?"
On Feb. 24, an aggrieved Mr. Strauss-Kahn, flanked by three lawyers, made a dramatic appearance in court, seeking justice. Two days later, the judge ruled that his right to privacy had indeed been violated. The author, Marcela Iacub; her publisher, Les Editions Stock; and Le Nouvel Observateur were ordered to pay damages totaling €75,000, or nearly $100,000.
Of the three, Le Nouvel Observateur took the most heat, and on Feb. 28, after deciding not to appeal the decision, the magazine hit the stands with a black-and-white "judicial communiqué" on the bottom half of its cover.
The news, as it turned out, was neither Mr. Strauss-Kahn's affair nor "The Beauty and the Beast," Ms. Iacub's slim book, which is now climbing up the French best-seller list, but rather the publication of excerpts in a magazine that since its founding 48 years ago has been regarded by many as the "grand journal of the conscience of the left."
Those words were cited by Mr. Strauss-Kahn in an open letter to the editors, in which he said Le Nouvel Observateur's decision had sickened him. "Is everything allowed just for the sake of making money?" he asked in court.
In Mr. Joffrin's view, Le Nouvel Observateur has emerged from this latest twist in the long-running "affaire D.S.K." as both a scapegoat and a turncoat. Others argue that it has also succeeded in turning Mr. Strauss-Kahn from villain to victim.
"I underestimated a collective phenomenon, which is resentment of the media in general," Mr. Joffrin said. "We were like a lightning rod that collected the electricity in the air."
Readers, outraged by the violation of a valued French tradition of the right to privacy, made their feelings known. That was the main reason that the magazine decided not to appeal the court's ruling. Mr. Joffrin has also acknowledged an error in not contacting Mr. Strauss-Kahn for comment -- a basic rule of journalism -- before publishing the extracts and displaying his photo on the cover.
But he believes there is another element to this latest twist in the saga, which dates from the spring of 2011, when editors of Le Nouvel Observateur were invited to lunch with Mr. Strauss-Kahn, then the leading candidate for the Socialist Party's nomination for the French presidency.
In an account published Feb. 28, Mr. Joffrin describes how Mr. Strauss-Kahn -- then only weeks away from an arraignment before a New York judge on charges of sexual assault -- told the editors that they were obliged to support him and ordered them to tell his rival, François Hollande, who subsequently won the nomination and the presidency, to back off or be banished from any future Socialist government.
"They consider us as a member of their family," Mr. Joffrin said. "We are the magazine of the reform left, and they felt that we should have supported them." In his view, this element of perceived betrayal added extra venom to the aggressive pursuit of Le Nouvel Observateur -- as opposed to other French newspapers, which picked up the Iacub story before turning around and condemning it.
Sex, power and the media is a familiar mix in French political life, an intricate game in which the rules have evolved since the Strauss-Kahn scandals broke, in New York, Paris and Lille. In the first case, prosecutors dropped the case against Mr. Strauss-Kahn and he reached an out-of-court settlement with a hotel chambermaid he was accused of assaulting. In the second, prosecutors declined to charge him with the attempted rape of a young writer. In the third, concerning allegations of involvement in a prostitution ring in France, charges are still possible.
According to Mr. Joffrin, the media are continually caught between their constitutional role to keep society informed and the seducing of readers. "All journalists want to be read," he added.
In France, particularly, there is the added tension between a person's right to privacy and the public's right to know. "The public knows we are supposed to protect people's private lives, and yet they accuse the press of protecting politicians," he said.
In Mr. Joffrin's view, Mr. Strauss-Kahn was an exception that proved the rule. He had been a potential candidate for the French presidency, he was implicated in three criminal cases, and his attitude toward sex and women smacked of a kind of "droit du seigneur," a license for powerful men to have their way.
"DSK's behavior was folkloresque," Mr. Joffrin aid. On those grounds, he opted to publish parts of Ms. Iacub's book, which, he insists, was literature, not journalism.
"Telling a journalist to go investigate a private life, that's where the limit lies," he said.
So what if Mr. Strauss-Kahn hadn't been caught in the Sofitel Hotel in New York? "If there hadn't been Sofitel, we would be in a mess," Mr. Joffrin said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.