US court system confounds French as Dominique Strauss-Kahn pleads not guilty

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty in a New York court today to charges of raping a hotel maid. Many French are alternately horrified and fascinated as they track the US judicial proceedings.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (2nd L) and his wife Anne Sinclair arrive accompanied by security guards at Manhattan Criminal Court for Strauss-Kahn's arraignment hearing in New York June 6. Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges he sexually assaulted a New York hotel maid in a case that cost him his job and a chance at the French presidency.

As former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is arraigned this morning, the case of “People v. Strauss-Kahn, 1225782, Criminal Court of the City of New York” continues to alternately horrify and fascinate the French. A central issue is the difference between the French system of justice, which stresses privacy and arguably is more lenient toward accused, and the more adversarial US one.

That an international French figure, once assumed by many here to be the next president, could appear at a New York court on sexual assault charges as a common criminal, remains “incroyable.” Many French love American crime TV, but it seems stranger than fiction to be watching a US courtroom drama whose central character is sometimes called "the most intelligent man in France," many here say.

All main French TV channels covered Mr. Strauss-Kahn live. Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty to raping a maid who entered his room at the Sofitel Hotel near Times Square last month. His legal team, headed by Benjamin Brafman, now a household name in France, refused to comment after the plea.

In an editorial titled, "Mere crime story or political tsunami?” Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, said today that the “The DSK affair is a mixture of a bit of everything: a crime story, a family tragedy, professional downfall, political desertion, as the former IMF director was poised to win the Socialist primaries due to begin at fall…."

Some French media have reflected the case through New York’s tabloid press, have been horrified by the “rough” handling of an eminence by New York police, and continue to highlight a judicial system that allows for a “perp walk” by a handcuffed accused; the French have no equivalent.

Under its Napoleonic Code, there is also no equivalent to an immediate plea of guilty or not guilty. Here there is no system of bail; accused are released or not on a judge's pre-trial decision, whereas Strauss-Kahn posted $6 million in bail and bond.

There remain in these early days perceptual differences over sentencing, with some French analysts counting up the number of years in prison for nine counts, 74, while most US legal specialists are estimating a sentence, if guilty, of five to 25 years.

Not untypical is this comment from La Croix, a Paris Catholic daily:

“Thrown to the lions in front of photographers as he was exiting the police station handcuffed, the former IMF boss was told by the judge that he would go to jail in front of all of the world's cameras. Something unimaginable in France. … the punishment incurred – 74 years in jail – also seems inconceivable in our country. 'It is very difficult for us to understand, but we have to avoid judging the Americans, their sense of justice is linked to their culture', the Honorary First President of the Paris Appellate Court Jean-Claude Magendie warns.’"

Since May 14, when Strauss-Kahn was apprehended, French reaction has shifted from immediate sympathy for Strauss-Kahn, and anger and disbelief, to an often pained debate over French male attitudes about women and toward a new freedom to criticize what has long been media silence about such attitudes, especially when they involve elites.

Today’s highly public court showing, however, registers another jolt.

“It’s impossible, impossible that a man like this can be shown in this way…incredible,” says Sophie Juil, shaking her head outside a local cafe.

Some newly emboldened feminists here are concerned that while the DSK affair may play off the charts as a story, core issues – media silence for elites, and men using privilege to behave badly and to continue indulging in frat-boy attitudes – may in time get buried.

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