French outrage over 'inhumane' treatment of Strauss-Kahn highlights culture clash

Unless it is proven that International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped a hotel maid in New York, it's none of the public's business, many French say.

Richard Drew/Pool/AP
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, waits to be arraigned Monday, May 16, in Manhattan Criminal Court for the alleged attack on a maid who went into his penthouse suite at a hotel near Times Square in New York to clean it.

As International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn sits in an American detention center cell on Rikers Island, his case has spurred a hot debate on French attitudes toward politicians and sexual misconduct.

Many in France are angry over the way US authorities have handled the Strauss-Kahn case, particularly the "perp walk" – which would be illegal in France – and the lack of bail, which they say implies that he has been presumed guilty, CNN reported.

"There's a general feeling of a media, a judicial fury – of a lynching," Jack Lang, France's former minister of culture and education and a Socialist Party lawmaker, told Europe 1 radio.

Lang called the American justice system "inhumane."

"For 48 hours now, only the side of the accusation has been heard ... and the versions given by police have been contradictory," he said. "The refusal to allow him out on bail, when no violent crime has been committed – even in America suspects are usually let go on bail if a violent crime has not been committed."

"They do feel he hasn't been given a chance to show his defense," [Nathan King, a correspondent for France 24 television network] said.

Robert Badinter, a member (like Strauss-Kahn) of France's Socialist party and a former justice minister, expressed dismay at the way the case was being handled in the US.

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He called Strauss-Kahn a friend and a man who many had rushed to accuse before even getting to the bottom of the situation. His comments were published in a roundup of reaction published by the French-language newspaper, Liberation.

"Where is the respect of the presumption of innocence?" he asked. "I see [in this situation] the failure of a system. It is a deliberate destruction, it is disgraceful, it has nothing to do with American justice. Why wasn't he released on bail? Because he is French? Because is the director of the IMF?"

Some have even gone so far as to speculate that his arrest was a plot by his political opponents who, working off of his reputation as the "Great Seducer," attempted frame him as a rapist – a possibility that Strauss-Kahn was concerned about even before the alleged assault, The Telegraph reports.

In the then off-the-record discussion on April 28, the International Monetary Fund chief said he could imagine a scenario where he was framed for a rape he did not commit. …

Mr. Strauss-Kahn then said there were three obstacles to his election: "Money (he is vastly wealthy), women, and my Judaism." Starting with the female question, the former Socialist finance minister said: "Yes, I love women, et alors?"

Strauss-Kahn elaborated on that concern, telling journalists he could "easily imagine 'a woman [who I supposedly] raped in a car park and who had been promised 500,000 or a million euros to invent such a story.' "

A less stringent view of promiscuity

The French outrage opens a window into the country's vastly different opinion of what sexual behavior is unacceptable for a public figure.

In the US, philandering could easily sink the career of a politician or anyone of prominence (other than a Hollywood celebrity, perhaps). When's the last time you heard anything about former US presidential candidate and former Sen. John Edwards that didn't also involve Rielle Hunter?

Not so in France, says a Paris-based correspondent for The New York Times. She gives an account of the vastly different political landscape when it comes to what most in the US would consider unacceptable sexual conduct, such as extramarital flirtation and affairs.

… Politicians in France are not hounded out of office for sexual indiscretions (although violence against women is another matter). Traditionally, a political man who reveals his sexual prowess is proving his vigor: he is showing his constituents that he is fully and physically capable of running the country.

During the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal in the United States, even some French politicians associated with Catholic causes chose to congratulate President Clinton for his strength of libido. “He loves women, this man!” Marie-Christine Boutin, a deputy in Parliament and a leader of the religious right, said. “It’s a sign of good health!”

French feminist organizations have called for balance in the media coverage (link is to an article in French) of Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid who accused him of assault. "[Strauss-Kahn] is presumed innocent" but "to cast suspicion on the intentions of the complainant is equally grave," said the Dare to be Feminist organization.

British media more in line with US views

The British media, with opinions on sexual conduct more similar to those of the US than their neighbors across the channel, have been critical of French coverage and what it says about the country's mentality toward sexual misbehavior.

A Guardian op-ed titled "Don't let Dominique Strauss-Kahn become the victim" rails against the amount of attention paid to Strauss-Kahn and the comparatively scant attention given to the possible plight of the woman who accused him of assault.

How this news has been treated by the French media says a lot about the country's tolerance for sexual misconduct.

[Strauss-Kahn's] reputation with women was an open secret. The journalists knew, the politicians knew. But, as Libération journalist Jean Quatremer writes, "having written about it in July 2007 … I incurred the wrath of some of my colleagues and part of the political class."

Indeed, following the appointment of [Strauss-Kahn] at the IMF, he wrote on his blog: "The only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too forceful, he often borders on harassment. It's a flaw known about in the media, but nobody is talking about it openly (we are in France)."

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