Ever since the news broke, a week ago Saturday, of the IMF head’s surprise arrest, for alleged attempted rape, in the first-class cabin of an Air France jet minutes from takeoff on the JFK tarmac, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn meltdown has caused France to experience a kind of cosmic O.J. moment. Specials take up every slot between news bulletins on all cable channels as well as on network prime time. Talking heads and supposed experts are called in to wall-to-wall illustrate, commentate, and pontificate. Every front page and magazine cover features a tieless, unshaven, haggard DSK—as he is known here—snapped during his infamous New York perp walk. Nobody talks about anything else.
Did he do it? How could he have been so stupid as to do it? Who entrapped him into doing it? Who benefits from his doing it? Did he jump? Was he pushed? Is this a dastardly Sarkozyste plot against the front-runner in next year’s presidential election? (Nobody suspects DSK’s main rivals within the Socialist party, François Hollande and Martine Aubry, of being practical-minded and organized enough to sort out a foreign honeytrap for him. This may not bode well for their chances in 2012.) Is this an evil international plot against France/the euro/the IMF/the EU, masterminded by Obama/Wall Street/Boeing/the Germans/China?
Really. Not joking here. A nice and smart friend of mine, a longtime lobbyist for one of France’s major corporations, which manufactures both civilian and military hardware, ticked off all the reasons why “stealing France’s [presidential] election simply can’t have happened by chance.” France was weakened by this, she explained. This worked against the euro. It threatened Europe’s economic recovery. Even if DSK hadn’t become president of France, he would have been a perfect contender for Herman Van Rompuy’s job as president of the European Union.
“But that’s a non-job,” I weakly objected, “given to a committee-handpicked bland candidate chosen especially for his unsurpassed tedium.”
“Precisely! Both Van Rompuy and [Baroness] Ashton [the EU’s gaffe-prone foreign minister] have demonstrated that Europe needs stronger and more competent personalities at its head.” Say what you will, we in France have a better class of conspiracy theorists.
As the week passed, with the unpleasant realization by the French public that the TV law and cop shows they love so much are an actual reflection of what happens to alleged criminals when they’re caught, opinions started to polarize in Paris. A bevy of DSK’s Left Bank intello and political friends, well-connected newspaper editors and pundits, insisted on the cruelty of the “public shaming” inflicted on DSK by “publicity-seeking attorneys and judges.” Every day brought more tin-eared pleas.
“It’s a new Dreyfus Affair,” Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the former Socialist defense minister, thundered. “Overblown! Really, nobody died in that hotel room,” dismissed Jack Lang, the charismatic former culture minister from Mitterrand times (and a law professor with a refreshingly easygoing view of rape). Robert Badinter, the former justice minister and president of the Conseil Constitutionnel (the French supreme court), declared the treatment inflicted on DSK, from the perp walk to allowing cameras in the Manhattan courtroom where he was arraigned, a “shameful public execution.” (Badinter is married to Elisabeth Badinter, perhaps France’s most famous feminist. Breakfast conversation chez les Badinter may be strained in the next couple of weeks.)
All this insensitive babble—as well as the startling lack of empathy from these platinum-credentialed liberals for the actual alleged victim, a working-class African single mother—was soon picked up by British and American reporters in a less than charitable mood. Next thing you knew, French papers were running the predictable headlines about “Anglo-Saxons criticizing France.” Less predictable was the growing reaction, especially among women of all classes, that enough was enough. The French have always known that their Revolution changed comparatively little to a system sharply divided between the rulers and the ruled. Whenever they complain of this state of affairs, they are branded “populists,” and if the complaints grow louder, someone will eventually warn of the “temptation of the Extreme Right.”
Now, as more women came out of the woodwork with DSK stories, and his defenders and spin doctors tried to brush these new accusers off as opportunists, it emerged that they had, in fact, mentioned Strauss-Kahn’s unpleasant, sometimes downright violent, advances, as early as the mid-2000s, to no interest whatsoever. The writer Tristane Banon, who told of going to interview DSK and having her bra torn off and jeans pushed down while she kicked back; the respected Socialist MP Aurélie Filipetti, who famously said she would always take care never to find herself alone in a room with DSK, had both been dismissed, not as liars but as unsophisticated pests.
This was the last straw for many. Thursday night, Hélène Jouan, newsmagazines editor in chief at France Inter, the country’s answer to NPR, broke into the cozy apologies of a panel of male editors on a prime time special on France 2, the national TV network, to accuse the entire male-dominated French political class of a quasi-harassment culture in which politicians view women journalists as “available”—making it possible to turn a blind eye to early warning signs of the DSK disaster.
She told of incessant text messages; of politicians on the campaign trail knocking insistently on her hotel door at night. “It never happened with DSK,” she said, “and of course it wasn’t assault or anything like it; but at the beginning of my career it was so heavy that I almost gave up journalism.”
This sounded horribly familiar. I, too, have clear memories from a couple of decades ago of this Gaullist mayor calling me “my little honeyrabbit” one minute into our interview; and of that Socialist Paris councilman offering to drive me home since I lived in his constituency and “mistaking” my knee for the stick shift at every red light. I never felt really threatened—and I would argue that learning how to fend off advances like these without getting hysterical is a valuable skill—but I was glad to be saved from the domestic politics beat by the Italian Red Brigades, which I started being sent to cover in Rome.
You could tell from the stony faces of the other France 2 panel members that Jouan’s account didn’t come as a complete surprise. Not much, in fact, about the DSK news has come as a surprise to the French media and political classes, except that he got caught; and that’s what the public is beginning to cotton on to. “They” knew, but “they” decided to hide behind the convenient pieties of French vaunted sophistication and tolerance, of respect for privacy—so much better, my dear, than the Anglo-Saxons’ tabloid culture. “Reporting stops at the bedroom door,” the editor in chief of Le Canard enchaîné, the satirical and investigative weekly, famously intoned in the 1970s. As it happens, that particular editor himself led at the time what we’ll euphemistically call a complicated private life. More than one correspondent felt that Le Canard’s “ethical” rule, become bylaw for the whole of the French press, amounted to little more than a drawing of lines between the hunters and their prey.
The DSK thunderbolt may well change all this. It will become increasingly difficult in the future for the media not to report on politicians’ and top bosses’ excesses the way they do on Hollywood—and for judges not to permit the defense, if privacy laws are invoked, that it was in the public interest. No wonder the pundits look gloomy these days: They and their politician friends can hear the tumbrils rolling across the cobblestones. Their cozy lives may never be the same again.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a regular columnist for the London Telegraph and a commentator for the BBC.