Strauss-Kahn arrest: Even the French are dismayed

The French are shocked at the sex-crime charges against potential French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Yet they would yawn over Arnold Schwarzenegger's infidelity.

Even the French – so nonchalant about dalliances by public figures – are shocked at the charges of sex crimes brought against Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York on Monday.

Before his arrest on a Paris-bound commercial jet last weekend, the chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was expected to soon announce his candidacy to become president of France.

The difference in French attitude about this case is, of course, the alleged violence. Mr. Strauss-Kahn, long known for his “libertine” behavior with women, was charged with attempted rape and other crimes against a hotel maid.

Had this been “merely” a report of a consensual extramarital affair – such as the one Strauss-Kahn had with a subordinate colleague at the IMF – the French would have turned over in bed and gone back to sleep. Certainly the IMF board did so in 2008, when it took no stronger action against this brilliant economist than to chastise him.

Private affairs are private, the French maintain. Why fuss over Bill Clinton’s philandering? Why be disappointed in former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is now separated from his wife, Maria Shriver, over a child he fathered more than 10 years ago with a household employee?

America’s strong dislike of sordid affairs by public officials isn’t simply because of its puritan roots. There is a recognition in the United States that those who claim to be working for the public good can’t be trusted if they hurt others in their private lives, whether that person be an unsuspecting chambermaid or an aggrieved spouse.

That’s not to equate attempted rape with infidelity. The law certainly recognizes the difference. With unfaithfulness, divorce is the legal recourse. If Strauss-Kahn is found guilty – his lawyer says he is not; there’s French speculation that the IMF chief was set up by political foes – he could get up to 25 years in prison.

Reportedly, Strauss-Kahn recently sat down with two journalists from the daily Libération. In off-the-record remarks, he allegedly said: “Yes I like women, so what?” Well, the “what” can range from an office where female subordinates are uncomfortable with a Casanova boss, to shattered families, to institutions put at risk, to physical and emotional harm to others.

It’s hard to know with public figures, but some of them at least say they understand that their actions showed a high disregard of others, with damaging effects. Mr. Schwarzenegger this week expressed remorse for his infidelity.

“I understand and deserve the feelings of anger and disappointment among my friends and family. There are no excuses and I take full responsibility for the hurt I have caused. I have apologized to Maria, my children, and my family. I am truly sorry.”

For those in public service who harm others by sexual misdeeds, a recognition of that harm is only the first step toward reclaiming the right to serve. Making amends, showing sincerity and integrity, and remembering the link between private and public morality are also required.

As the French might say, That’s true liberté.

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