PARIS — Even during a week devoted to escaping the news while seeing this city’s glorious sights, it was impossible to avoid the fallout from L’Affaire DSK.
These are the initials, familiar to French citizens, of Dominique Strauss-Kahn — until recently the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a central figure in helping the global economy emerge from recession, an architect of financial bailout packages for Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, and the odds-on favorite to become the next president of France in 2012.
Until, that is, New York police hustled him off a plane this month and arrested him, prosecutors charged him with trying to rape a chambermaid in a $3,000-a-night hotel suite, and jail officials at Rikers Island placed him on suicide watch before a judge finally released him on high bail and under house arrest. If he is convicted of the most serious of the seven charges against him, he faces 25 years in jail.
Magazine covers that depicted Mr. Strauss-Kahn glowering at his arraignment were as omnipresent in Paris as the cigarette smoke in sidewalk cafés. French TV networks reported the story at exhaustive length. Although French people traditionally have declared their leaders’ private conduct — including sexual behavior — off limits as public issues, the shock here at the allegations was palpable.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn proclaimed his innocence “with the greatest possible firmness.” His wife, a former French television journalist, said she did not believe the charges “for a single second.” But the consensus seemed to be that even if he is found not guilty, his political career is over.
As an American and a newspaperman, I was intrigued by the reaction of French media and politicians to Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s treatment at the hands of the U.S. criminal justice system. An editorial in Le Monde, the New York Times of France, thundered that “in the realm of media and politics, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has been judged. And mercilessly condemned.”
There was near-universal outrage that the haggard-looking IMF chief had been subjected to a “perp walk,” the parading of a criminal suspect before media cameras that is familiar to viewers of Law and Order reruns. There were references to “lynching” and deliberate humiliation. In France, it’s illegal for news media to show suspects in handcuffs or even with their faces exposed.
Yet amid all of the concern about invasions of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s privacy, several French newspapers published the name of his alleged victim, an African immigrant. Nearly all American newspapers, including this one, have a policy of not identifying victims of sexual assault.
Just as intriguing was the way the story got spun, and re-spun, as the revelations emerged. At first, Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist Party allies insisted he had been set up, perhaps by agents of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When that theory collapsed of its own weight, the next suggestion — which seemed equally implausible — was that if he had sex with the maid, it had to have been consensual.
This addressed another element of the story — Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a ladies’ man, which had previously not appeared to harm him politically. Media commentators asked why a man who was so successful with women would have to force himself on anyone. Some even implied that men as accomplished as Mr. Strauss-Kahn were entitled to certain liberties.
Defenders cited the IMF’s conclusion that an affair Mr. Strauss-Kahn had had with a staff economist who reported to him was consensual and not a matter of harassment. But in the wake of his arrest, the economist said she had felt coerced, and had told IMF investigators that.
A young journalist accused Mr. Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her in 2002. She said her mother, a political ally of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, dissuaded her from pressing charges at the time. But now, she told French media that she intends to proceed.
In an interview conducted before his arrest and published in the leftist newspaper Liberation during the thick of the coverage, Mr. Strauss-Kahn said three aspects of his biography could threaten his presidential ambitions: “money, women, and my Jewishness.” Right-wing critics denounced him as a “caviar socialist,” noting his fondness for Porsches and his luxury homes on three continents.
By the end of the first week of scandal coverage, French media were starting to ask whether they had been too protective of Mr. Strauss-Kahn and other politicians in suppressing their reports of supposedly private matters. It’s a long way from the Gallic bewilderment more than a decade ago that Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky could have threatened his presidency.
But sexual violence and sex are far different. It’s reassuring that in the United States, a hotel maid — a religious young widow with a teenage daughter — got police and prosecutors to take seriously her accusations of mistreatment by one of the world’s most powerful men.
Some French media were honest enough to ask whether the same thing would have happened in their country. For years, movie director Roman Polanski lived in France as a fugitive from justice in the United States, where he drugged, raped, and sodomized a 13-year-old girl.
Polanski has turned up regularly — and publicly — to be photographed at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Talk about a perp walk.
As the daily revelations of L’Affaire DSK played out, I found them providing a reason to look forward to returning from Paris to Toledo — where the current political scandals, such as they are, don’t involve tawdry sex or threaten the downfall of the Greek government.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org