Dominique Strauss-Kahn played down on Tuesday his alleged role in sex parties with prostitutes, telling a French court he did not know they were being paid and that the frequency of the evenings had been wildly exaggerated.
The 65-year-old former head of the International Monetary Fund is accused of instigating about a dozen parties he knew involved prostitutes between 2008-2011 in the northern French city of Lille, Washington, Brussels and Paris.
"When you read the criminal complaint you get the impression it was this frenetic activity," said Strauss-Kahn, wearing a sober black suit and grey tie.
"But it was four times a year, not more than that. It wasn't this out-of-control activity that the complaint suggests."
Speaking swiftly and confidently, he told the court that at that stage in his career he still had "political ambitions" and that his work at the IMF was an "important job".
Strauss-Kahn was tipped to become French president before being accused of sexual assault by a New York hotel chambermaid in 2011. US criminal charges were dropped, with allegations that he participated in a French sex ring emerging later.
Several topless protesters from the FEMEN group with slogans painted in black on their chests and torsos had earlier thrown themselves on Strauss-Kahn's car as it arrived at court before being pulled away by police.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers acknowledge their client took part in sex parties but say he did not know the women were prostitutes and so reject the charge against him of pimping, or in legal terms "procuring with aggravating circumstances".
Asked by the court's presiding magistrate whether his previously stated position with regard to the prostitutes -- that he was not aware of their status -- had changed, Strauss-Kahn said: "No".
A woman who testified that she was hired to have sexual relations with Strauss-Kahn at one the evenings in Paris said he must have known that he was dealing with prostitutes.
She described an encounter when she was left alone with Strauss-Kahn in a bedroom.
"There were activities ... against nature. I wasn't used to doing things of that nature," said the woman, speaking softly and hesitantly. "It wasn't violence, it was a relationship of force."
Despite gesturing to him that she was uncomfortable with the practice, she consented "because I really needed that money and I was scared maybe not to leave with it".
"He was smiling from the beginning until the end."
Strauss-Kahn, who says his political career is already over, could face 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 1.5 million euros ($1.72 million) if convicted.
Investigating magistrates who sent the matter to trial say the procuring charge applies because in France it covers any activity seen as facilitating prostitution. In Strauss-Kahn's case, it is alleged that he allowed his rented apartment to be used for sex parties involving prostitutes and that the parties were organised for his benefit.
Moreover, because the charges say he did not pay the prostitutes himself, he is alleged to have received benefit in kind from prostitution.
The three-week trial began last week. Strauss-Kahn was responding on Tuesday for the first time to the testimony of two former prostitutes who say they participated in the parties.
Fourteen people in all, including Strauss-Kahn, are defendants in the "Carlton Affair" trial, so named after the hotel in Lille that sparked the investigation into a sex ring.
Strauss-Kahn, who was French finance minister in the late 1990s and headed the IMF from 2007, had been expected to run for French president in 2012 but withdrew after being accused of sexual assault by chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo.
That allowed Socialist Francois Hollande to come forward and beat conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
After the criminal charges were dropped, he settled civil proceedings brought against him by Diallo in New York.