Beyond Strauss-Kahn, An Indictment of French Political Culture

“It’s our September 11th” confides a socialist supporter to reporters as the news broke that former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also known as “DSK,” has been charged for sexual assault and attempted rape in New York. And as for September 11th, there are some in France that are more comfortable imagining fictions of conspiracies than trying to think through the unthinkable. Or here, actually, the not so unthinkable.

Beyond the sensational legal case that opens with former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s indictment for sexual assault last Friday, another trial has already begun in France: that of the male-chauvinist establishment that ran to Strauss-Kahn’s rescue in scandalous misogynist outbursts earlier this week, and that of the self-proclaimed “intellectuals” who participated and legitimized this repulsive complacency. That trial has long been overdue.

Indeed, beyond the question of what exactly happened in room 2806 of the Sofitel Hotel Saturday May 14th, beyond DSK himself, what is truly shocking is the cultural and political climate that the French responses elicited by this affair reveal. Specifically how the left, in spite of its proclaimed ideals, has failed to make its own cultural revolution around issues of gender and race.

An opinion poll published Wednesday May 18 showed that 57% of the French thought that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a conspiracy. That number rose to 70% among socialist supporters. “In a state of shock,” “grieving,” “disoriented,” “deeply saddened”: those were the feelings expressed on the radio, and in the press. But not for the reasons you would think: the vast majority on the left (apart from a few vocal women) was sympathetic to DSK. If one were to believe most comments, he, and not the assaulted hotel employee, was the victim: victim of the brutality of the American legal system, who did not shield the suspect from photographers and treated him like any other felon; victim possibly of an American retaliation against the French for having officially (and shamefully) supported filmmaker Roman Polanski in 2009 when he was trying to escape American prosecution for rape; victim of “media bashing” according to former French Attorney General Robert Badinter, a lawyer who, in what seems now another era, contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in France.

This outdated strand of anti-Americanism converged with outright misogyny in comments by journalist Jean-François Kahn, the founder of two highly influential French weeklies. He had this unforgiving remark to defend Dominique Strauss-Kahn: his long-time friend could not possibly have assaulted a woman, no, that's so not like him, “but a quickie with the domestic (un troussage de domestique) yes, maybe that was possible” (this statement was delivered with a quick, sly laugh). The last blow was given by former minister Jack Lang. Dismissing the charges of attempted rape, he had only these words for the hotel maid: “it is not like someone got killed…” (“y a pas mort d’homme”).

The assumption here is that sexual crimes are not as important as the social status of the alleged perpetrator and the right to an unquestioned political career. And so conspiracy theories thrive, the first of them being the usual reversal of roles so common in rape cases: the accuser becomes the accused; it was not rape but consensual sex; the offender is the victim. The rationale behind this collective delusion is this: DSK was the only candidate on the left who could defeat the incumbent President, Sarkozy, according to polls. To many, he was a savior. But he was not a saint, and everyone knew it.

In 2007, a young writer, Tristane Banon, admitted on a popular TV show to having been sexually assaulted by DSK in 2002: she was laughed at. No one cared to investigate, and DSK’s name was bleeped. That her mother, a socialist elected official, dissuaded her to press charges speaks of the general atmosphere of silent impunity that is prevalent in France regarding sexual harassment. Shame to the victim, immunity to the offender.

Self-proclaimed "philosopher" Bernard Henri-Levy (an old friend of DSK) uses that very rhetoric in the DailyBeast when he plagiarizes Zola's "J'accuse" to claim that the young writer Tristane Banon “pretends to have been the victim of attempted rape” only to reap the benefits of more publicity (Note to BHL: n'est pas Zola qui veut). This kind of reverse accusation against victims helps accounts for the fact that, in France, only 10% of rape victims report the crime to the police (compared to 40% in the US). I remember growing up in the 80’s when there were reports of rape victims being sexually assaulted in the police station where they had gone to report the assault: the boys laughed at this as a good, realistic joke.

One can only wonder what would have happened if the encounter between DSK and the maid had happened in France: would she have felt protected enough by the law to rush and report the alleged crime? Would the manager of the hotel have called 911? Would the police have rushed to the scene? I bet no. Such a scenario sounds like science-fiction to any French person used to the daily denial of respect that rape and assault victims encounter daily.

Background checks of politicians are not in the political culture in France: from a legal standpoint, the right to privacy is more strongly defended than that to free speech.

This time though, the indicting facts are recent, they are serious, they are repetitive, and they are, in and of themselves, political in nature, as the respect of dissenting opinions, of the integrity of others, and of women’s rights in particular are at stake. It is about time that the press reconsider the allegedly inviolable line that separates public lives and private behaviors, that politicians be summoned to rise to more stringent, and more equal, standards of decency, and that the electorate stop waiting for the providential man.

It is to hope that this sensational affair, and the abysmal reaction of the masculine French elite that followed, will be a wake-up call in France, and a reminder here, that a zero tolerance policy is the only possible one regarding sexual abuse and sexism.

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