When I woke up on Sunday morning, the news came as a shock. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French leader of the International Monetary Fund and the leading Socialist presidential candidate had been arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a maid of the Sofitel Hotel in New York City.
While Americans are already condemning Strauss-Kahn, French people are trying to be more tolerant and many even consider him innocent. Even if he were to be proven guilty, many of his followers would most likely continue to defend him and believe that he has been set-up. Given Strauss-Kahn's history with women, it is quite plausible that he tried to have sex with the maid, but many of us just don't want to believe he assaulted her.
My first reaction was like many French citizens. I did not think for a minute about the maid who could have been raped. All of my sympathy went to Strauss-Kahn, and I wondered, like many others, whether he had been set-up. Because of the seriousness of accusations of set-up, many of Strauss-Kahn’s supporters have tried to allude to that possibility in veiled terms. For example, influential French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy even asked on his blog "La règle du jeu" on Monday morning: “I don't know what really happened in this room but it would be relevant to ask how a maid could enter alone in a room while normally they are supposed to be two.” Another Strauss-Kahn ally Jack Lang, a former Minister of Education, appeared on national television last night and accused the media of "lynching" his friend.
Why is French society so shaken up by this drama? Because if true, Strauss-Kahn can never be a candidate for French president. That’s because even if it were a set-up, he won't have time to prove it before the presidential elections in 2012, as the Socialist primary will start next month. Even if he could prove his innocence, Strauss-Kahn will be unable to gain his voters’ trust again.
As a Strauss-Kahn supporter, I still hope this was a set-up, but I wouldn't dare accuse anyone and I will respect that he is “innocent until proven guilty”. Yes, Strauss-Kahn was a threat for Nicolas Sarkozy, as the more popular French politician. But I don't believe that Sarkozy or his followers would do this; they have ethics.
Over the past few days, the presumption of innocence has become important in the French media. Along with many politicians, I was shocked by the images of Strauss-Kahn appearing in handcuffs and being filmed in the courtroom. In 2000, a French law was passed to reinforce the presumption of innocence, which forbids the publishing of photos of someone in handcuffs who has not been convicted yet. The former justice Minister Elizabeth Guigou even said she was “happy that we don't have the same judiciary system,” arguing that the American one was accusatory while the French is “more protective of individual rights.”
The French people are more tolerant than Americans of illegitimate affairs. For example, the Monica Lewinsky scandal that helped impeach President Bill Clinton did not shake France; we talked more about American prudishness than about the affair itself. Difference of morals? Probably.
When Strauss-Kahn was threatened from being fired from the IMF in 2008 after he had an affair with Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian economist, what struck us in France once again was not the affair itself, but the strict rules of the IMF. There were even sympathetic portrayals of Strauss-Kahn as someone who likes women.
Still, one blog post that went unnoticed at the time by Libération journalist Jean Quatremer on his blog "Coulisses de Bruxelles" on July 9, 2007 is noteworthy and has resurfaced this weekend: "(He is) too insistent, he often comes close to harassment. A weakness known by the media but which nobody mentions. (We are in France). The I.M.F however, is an international institution with Anglo-Saxons morals. A misplaced gesture, a too specific allusion, and it will be a media scramble."
Many of his other affairs have resurfaced this weekend, and many journalists are trying to prove that Strauss-Kahn was a sex addict. The story of Tristane Banon, a French journalist who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her in 2002 but did not press charges is in the headlines again.
As usual, the media frenzy has been swift. While most Americans probably believe Strauss-Kahn is guilty, many of us in France prefer to talk about his history and focus on the way he has been treated by the American justice system. The best behavior would probably be for us to wait and see, and let him give his version of events.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons