Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was not just rich and powerful. He was also, until last Saturday, the likely next president of France. So commanding was his lead that rumors had been flying since April that Martine Aubry, his chief rival for the Socialist nomination, would soon drop out of the race.

Even if the idea of Strauss-Kahn as their head of state is something the French were only trying on for size, no people can be comfortable seeing their potential leader marched around as an accused rapist, particularly under the customs of an alien legal system. The French are indignant at the “perp walk,” the tradition of marching an arrestee before the video cameras that is former U.S. attorney Rudolph Giuliani’s contribution to American show business. The French see it as an act of vanity by publicity-seeking prosecutors and a potential harm to the presumption of innocence. On both counts, they are correct.

There are two ways to look at the anger that rose up in the French press after Strauss-Kahn, disheveled and humiliated, was photographed after his arrest. The first is to see an understandable discomfort with an act of lèse-majesté. The other is to see a public grown servile and sycophantic. The French press may have been worried about seeing Strauss-Kahn’s name dragged through the mud, but it was quite content to print the name of his alleged victim. Then there’s the increasingly notorious defense of Strauss-Kahn by his friend Bernard-Henri Lévy, who writes:

I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a “cleaning brigade” of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet.

The letter smacks of the assumption that people of the cleaning lady’s class are there for the convenience or delectation of people of Lévy’s class—“les people,” as the glitterati are called in French gossip columns.

But perhaps this is to sell the French short. Perhaps it is only a collection of official intellectuals and court journalists who advance this view of the Strauss-Kahn case. Perhaps the real views of France are those of a reader who wrote in an on-line forum of the French newsweekly L’Express that the French “are discovering to their shock that in the United States, ‘criminals’ are treated the same way no matter what their wealth and social standing.” French journalists, the correspondent noted, “seem to find it scandalous and humiliating that a ‘somebody’ suspected of serious crimes should be treated like a ‘nobody.’

Perhaps more than any U.S. defendant since O.J. Simpson, Strauss-Kahn represents privilege. But he represents something more, too. Although he belongs to a European Socialist party, it is probably fair to say that, in most people’s minds, he represents capitalism. Strauss-Kahn was a superb finance minister the last time the Socialists, under Lionel Jospin, held power (1997-2002). Jospin’s government was not particularly socialistic. It privatized more industries than Jacques Chirac did and, year after year, in an unsung way, kept the growth of the French state below that of Britain, where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were thought to be carrying out an experiment in Thatcherite socialism.

Strauss-Kahn, in short, was like a business-friendly Democrat—sort of the Larry Summers or Robert Rubin of French economic policy. In this day and age, it speaks well of the French Socialists that they were about to nominate, and of the French public that they were ready to elect, a president focused on growth rather than envy. It also speaks well of the IMF that it saw fit to hire a person with such an independent streak.

Most economists on the left have been trapped in the partisan argument that, because stimulus is always good, deficits are always harmless. Not Strauss-Kahn. He believed that time was running out for the United States to bring its deficits under control. Three big black clouds passed over U.S. bond markets this spring. One was the announcement by Bill Gross of Pimco that he was exiting his T-bill positions. Another was the shift of Standard & Poor’s to a “negative” outlook on U.S. debt. But as important as either of these was the unprecedented warning by Strauss-Kahn’s IMF that the United States had no “credible strategy” for dealing with its debt.

Strauss-Kahn’s departure from the IMF comes at the worst possible time for Europe. The director’s position has traditionally gone to a European, just as the job of heading the World Bank has gone to an American. In fact, in 39 of the years since the IMF was founded in 1946, its director has been a Frenchman. In recent years, the job has involved imposing “structural adjustment programs” on debtor countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia to ensure that they pay back Western banks. But today the deadbeats are in Europe and North America, and the countries of the old Third World—from Mexico to South Africa to Singapore—are putting forward their own credible candidates for the top IMF job. Europe may soon find itself taking orders from those it used to lecture.

The Strauss-Kahn episode is spectacular, but it fits a pattern. France missed the Arab democracy movement last winter because it was mired in scandal. At the height of the demonstrations, it emerged that Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie had accepted improper favors from Tunisia’s ousted government and Prime Minister François Fillon had taken hospitality from the Egypt of Mubarak. France’s leading candidate to succeed Strauss-Kahn at the IMF, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, must first face an inquiry over a court-ordered settlement paid to former crooner, businessman, and Socialist minister Bernard Tapie. Strauss-Kahn’s alleged crime points to a personal failure, but it is also an episode in the collapse of a political elite. Faced with a record of hubris among the governing classes, the people are losing patience with “les people.”

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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