Strauss-Kahn arrest: End of the French media taboo?

The arrest of French presidential favorite Dominque Strauss-Kahn on sex-crime charges is causing some French journalists to rethink the taboo on coverage of the private lives and loves of powerful figures. Private should not always be private.

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    Dominique Strauss-Kahn attends a meeting in Autun, France, in 2006. Accusations that the powerful French politician who heads the International Monetary Fund sexually assaulted a Manhattan hotel maid unleashed a crisis in his homeland, where he had been considered a leading candidate for president, and added to the jitters of European economies in need of financial support.
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Will sex-crime charges against a favorite for the French presidency undo a media taboo on the sexual escapades of the French elite?

Dalliances among the powerful are a nonstory in France. For one thing, strict libel and privacy laws discourage such media coverage. For another, infidelity is believed to be so common as to be a waste of reporter shoe leather. Perhaps more important, though, is the French attitude that affairs of the heart (or otherwise) are unrelated to affairs of state. They are private matters of no public consequence, and should be of no interest to the media.

Then along comes the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He was expected to soon announce his candidacy for the French presidency, and to win. But he was charged on Monday with attempted rape and other crimes related to a maid who came to clean his suite at the Sofitel Hotel in New York on May 7. (For the Monitor's editorial on Mr. Strauss-Kahn, click here.)

The French media have long known of Strauss-Kahn's penchant for women. But they paid little heed until an investigation in 2008 of his affair with an IMF subordinate, a Hungarian economist named Piroska Nagy. The affair was found to be consensual, but to have shown poor judgment. The admired leader of the IMF apologized. End of story.

But should it have been? Some French journalists wonder, given the criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn that now endanger his presidential bid and his successful leadership of the IMF in a time of stressed global finances.

A leading French political commentator told The New York Times that journalists haven't done their job properly. For instance, he now regrets saying nothing about a former French foreign minister who was involved with the daughter of Syria's defense minister. "I was wrong. It had an impact on France's foreign policy," said Pierre Haski.

Former French President Francois Mitterand once answered "yes, it's true, and so what?" to a journalist's question about whether he had an out-of-wedlock daughter. Only after his death did it come out that the French government had financially supported his mistress and daughter.

The separation of the private-and-work spheres is not as tidy as the French may imagine. A boss who exercises power over employees to win sexual favors can poison an office. In a letter to IMF investigators, Ms. Nagy wrote that she was "damned if I did and damned if I didn't" agree to the affair, which was brief. She also noted that Strauss-Kahn has "a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command."

One can hardly endorse TMZ-style journalism in the United States. But the French taboo is another extreme that keeps the public in the dark about important aspects of a public figure's character and its consequences.

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