International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, known as the "Great Seducer" in his home country of France, flunked out at seducing New York Judge Melissa C. Jackson this week. Instead, she sent him to Rikers Island pending further court appearances in the wake of a Sofitel maid's accusations that he attempted to force his charisma upon her before leaving for the airport and boarding a plane, where authorities arrested him.
I'm in no position to judge the facts of this case. Not only was I not in the hotel room, but my experience with Strauss-Kahn -- or "DSK," as he's known here in France -- is limited to having seen him on the cover of the newspaper France Soir in his capacity as presidential hopeful. I immediately texted to a French friend that the look Strauss-Kahn was giving in the cover photo made my skin crawl. But who am I to judge anything definitively with my gut instinct honed by thousands of years of human evolution? I think I'll let the State of New York apply a more objective test.
But as a Canadian-born political analyst and media commentator who has spent the bulk of her career in America and now lives and works in that same capacity in Paris, it's not the details of this case that I find striking or the most disturbing, but rather what the incident says more globally about French culture and the way things work here.
It would appear that this is France's first real sex scandal. Not that people in power here haven't previously behaved abominably. Jacques Chirac, for instance, once bragged that he loved many women despite being quite obviously married to his long-suffering Bernadette. Centrist President Valery Giscard d'Estaing is alleged to have fathered an extramarital love child with Christine de Veyrac, who's now a European Parliament member. Francois Mitterrand kept a second secret family at taxpayers' expense while he led the country, proving that not even taxpayer burden can justify public exposure of peccadilloes.
Anglo-Saxons, myself included prior to moving here, tend to dismiss the French lackadaisical attitude toward their elite's personal lives as being culturally ingrained. That may be true, but it's a phenomenon that was brought about by strict law as a result of unfortunate history. In the wake of World War II, during which being outed as a Jew meant a trip to the gas chamber, people's personal lives became off-limits. Now, the same law that emerged from the Holocaust is used by celebrities to sue tabloids that publish photos or information related to their love lives without permission. Some stars even hire photographers to take such photos so they can then turn a profit. Still, there's a deep, expressed disgust here for people who blabber about someone's personal faults or private life. In most cases, it's not a bad thing, but it often means that people are loath to point out when private behavior has crossed over into the public sphere and become problematic.
This same respect for privacy has been used to sweep nonsense under the rug to the point of promoting people with stunning pathologies into top-level positions. Upon hearing that a former top political figure had perpetrated a sex crime, one media boss said it was obvious someone was out for revenge against the poor perpetrator since the interior minister -- being in charge of police -- would have otherwise just erased the incident from the books as though it had never happened.
Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet expressed concern this week that the DSK incident would put France in a bad light. It's not as if America is devoid of "great seducers" -- Bill Clinton being the obvious one that comes to mind -- but France takes it to a whole other level of permissiveness, arguably allowing far too much lenience under the guise of "respect for privacy." For example, in a 2008 Gala Magazine article, DSK's wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, was asked whether her husband's reputation as a seducer scared her. "On the contrary, it pleases me," she replied. "I understand he's a seducer. He seduced me! And that doesn't scare me, we know each other well."
But in the paragraph just above, the article explained how DSK's "young university economics students were regularly warned of the tastes of the mayor of Sarcelles for alcove adventures." As a professor at an elite French university myself, I'd fully expect to be shown the door if I ever started engaging in "alcove stories" with students, rather than have it dismissed as some kind of personal quirk. That right there is exactly where the private sphere ends and the professional and public spheres begin. I certainly wouldn't expect the president of France to promote me to be the head of a world governing body given that kind of propensity for inappropriate behavior.
Not that this hands-off approach to the personal sphere is taken when a spirited public defense is called for. On the contrary: Rather than just taking a wait-and-see, "no comment," "it's his personal life" or "I have no idea" approach, elites from all sides, and with very few exceptions, are manifesting either a deep cognitive dissonance or self-preservation in the event that the behind they are kissing makes its way back across the Atlantic and into a position that could affect them. DSK's biographer, Michael Taubmann, said that "a seducer seeks to seduce and not to force," so therefore DSK "doesn't have the profile of a rapist." DSK supporter and former presidential candidate Segolene Royale is pleading for people to not add to the crisis.
Far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who has never until now enjoyed enough power to have to bother kissing anyone's behind, declared to "have not been surprised" and "not fallen off my chair" at the DSK news.
If this incident had happened here in France rather than in the USA, I guarantee that we wouldn't be hearing about it at all. If there's something the French ought to ponder, it's that.