LILLE, France — Dominique Strauss-Kahn had a caustic reaction as four years of legal battles involving sex charges on two continents ended without a single conviction: "All that for this?"
From a sordid New York hotel encounter to orgies in Paris, the former International Monetary Fund chief has admitted to questionable behavior that destroyed his political career and onetime presidential ambitions. He's a sexual libertine, by his own admission. But courts have repeatedly found no grounds to convict him as a criminal.
Friday's ruling in the northern French city of Lille closed a sometimes surreal chapter for Strauss-Kahn and for France, where the unusual public airing of his private life sent shockwaves through society and upended high-level politics. Some Frenchwomen hoped the DSK scandal, as it became known, would make it easier to hold powerful men accountable for sexual wrongdoing — a hope largely unfulfilled.
In a packed courtroom Friday, a panel of judges acquitted all but one of the 13 defendants of accusations of involvement in a prostitution ring. Strauss-Kahn faced charges of "aggravated pimping," but the judges said he was not involved in hiring the prostitutes involved or paying them.
That's what Strauss-Kahn said all along: "All that for this?" he scoffed as he rose to leave the courtroom with his girlfriend and adult daughter. "What a waste."
The 66-year-old economist freely, even proudly, admitted during the February trial that he took part in sex parties from 2008-2011, while he was heading the IMF and married — events he called much-needed "recreational sessions" at a time of intense pressure to steer the world through economic peril.
Two prostitutes, in searing testimony, described sometimes humiliating experiences and "beast-like" behavior by Strauss-Kahn.
The trial confirmed a sense among many French people that Strauss-Kahn was no average philandering politician, and had crossed beyond standard limits of decency.
Yet as presiding judge Bernard Lemaire said at the opening of the trial: "The court is not the guardian of moral order, but of the law."
The prostitutes acknowledged they never told Strauss-Kahn they were paid, and other defendants described their voluntary efforts to protect their powerful friend from embarrassment.
At the end of the trial, even the prosecutor asked for Strauss-Kahn's acquittal, saying the trial did not back up the charge of aggravated pimping, which requires proof that he promoted or profited from prostitution.
Strauss-Kahn was hit with the French prostitution ring charges in 2012. The 13 defendants, including hotel managers, entrepreneurs, a lawyer and a police chief, were accused of participating in or organizing the collective sexual encounters in Paris, Washington and in the Brussels region in 2008-2011.
None of the women who took part in the sex parties was present at Friday's ruling, and only two of the numerous prostitutes who were interviewed by investigators agreed to testify at trial.
Prostitution is currently legal in France, but prostitutes are often arrested and charged for soliciting in public. Brothels, pimping and the sale of sex by minors are illegal.
A movement is afoot in France to change the way the country looks at prostitution. The lower house of parliament approved a controversial bill Friday that, if also approved by the upper house, would be one of Europe's toughest laws against prostitutes' clients, punishing the buyer instead of the seller of sex.
Friday's 147-page verdict was the last step in a drama that began May 11, 2011, when New York police arrested Strauss-Kahn moments before he was to take off from JFK Airport.
Hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo told police he had tried to rape her. A scruffy Strauss-Kahn suffered a "perp walk" in front of the world's cameras, spent time in Rikers Island jail, and a month in high-end house arrest.
But prosecutors dropped criminal charges, and he and Diallo settled out of court in a civil case.
The maid's accusations prompted some French women to go public with accusations of harassment or other sexual mistreatment by Strauss-Kahn in the past. Writer Tristane Banon tried to sue him for attempted rape.
Her case, too, was dropped, because the statute of limitations had expired.
The New York allegations shook France both because it lost a leading presidential contender and because it splashed allegations about a French public figure's private life onto media worldwide. Many French growled over the humiliating U.S. display of one of their icons.
A longtime legislator from a working-class Paris suburb, Strauss-Kahn helped manage the launch of the euro currency in France as finance minister, and was runner-up in the Socialist Party's 2006 presidential primary. He had a glamorous marriage to high-profile journalist Anne Sinclair — who stuck by his side throughout his New York ordeal but split from him in 2012, saying she had been in denial about his behavior.
While the rape and assault allegations against Strauss-Kahn were grave, experts stress they are extraordinarily hard to prove, given that they rest heavily on the word of the accuser against the accused.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyer Henri Leclerc suggested that the media and French investigators had gone too far in pursuing a public figure for his private behavior:
"This immense uproar around this affair is something that should make everyone step back and think."
Charlton reported from Paris. Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.