IMF chief: A scandal in New York c’est normal for French politics

The National - 20 May 2011

For a country used to keeping its sexual shenanigans firmly in the boudoir, there is no doubt that France is suffering huge international embarrassment because of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair.

The former International Monetary Fund chief’s arrest in New York on a long list of charges including attempted rape is, of course, far more serious than the kind of bedroom farces that have featured French politicians for generations.

However, the country’s habit to underplay the private excesses of its statesmen has been brought into sharp focus by Mr Strauss-Kahn’s humiliation. As yet, none of the allegations have been proved, but it is still remarkable how much support the controversial 62-year-old enjoys at home.

Not only was Mr Strauss-Kahn the figurehead of one of the world’s foremost financial institutions – one which plays a key role in the regulation of the global economy – but he was the leading contender to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. In any other country, his chequered private life would have been the subject of intense scrutiny long ago, but in France it was simply tolerated.

Even when Mr Strauss-Kahn was forced to publicly apologise for an extramarital affair with a colleague at the IMF in 2008, the lack of interest was evident. Now that he has finally resigned from the IMF, many French people are suggesting that he should have “held on” until the legal process was over. They clearly haven’t considered the damage that the scandal was causing to the IMF: guilty or not, the sight of its chief appearing before a judge after being accused of rape was simply untenable.

Mr Strauss-Kahn’s infamously partisan Socialist Party has led the chorus of outrage against the broadcasting of images of him being led in handcuffs to a New York court and refused $1 million bail. With distasteful hyperbole considering the seriousness of the charges, the former culture and education minister Jack Lang called it a “lynching” that has “provoked horror and aroused disgust”. An opinion poll for BFM-TV, RMC radio and the 20 Minutes newspaper showed that 57 per cent of French people believed that Mr Strauss-Kahn is the “victim of a plot”. This figure rose to 70 per cent among those who vote Socialist.

Such statistics reflect a disturbing French approach to the administration of public justice – one which has its roots deep in the country’s historic obsession with privacy. Even now it is causing all kind of resentment abroad, not least of all in the United States, a country that has frequently bemoaned the French sense of arrogant superiority in international relations.

If Mr Strauss-Kahn had won next year’s presidential elections – as he was expected to do – he would have been the first Socialist president since François Mitterrand, a head of state also well- known for having a far from conventional personal life. Mitterrand had a “secret” daughter, Mazarine, with his long-term mistress and numerous other presidential sexual conquests.

Mr Strauss-Kahn has, similarly, been known as “le grand seducteur” (great seducer) and “chaud lapin” (hot bunny – or someone who is always looking for sex) for years, but this has never affected his professional life in France.

Even when Tristane Banon, the 31-year-old god-daughter of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s second wife Brigitte Guillemette, said he attacked her almost a decade ago, she was originally ignored.

Ms Banon spoke about the alleged 2002 attempted rape on a Paris TV talk show in 2007, but no action was taken against Mr Strauss-Kahn, who was instead almost playfully dismissed as a “rutting chimpanzee”.

Legally, Mr Strauss-Kahn’s ability to simply ignore Ms Banon’s claims has been based on Article 9 of France’s Civil Code: “Everyone has the right to privacy.” Less formally, the secrecy is based on a French sense of entitlement – the kind that saw Jack Lang blame the Strauss-Kahn debacle on American lawyers’ “desire to take down a Frenchman, a Frenchman who is moreover well-known”.

Such an insular, chauvinistic view will revive tensions between the US and France that had reached a high point during the Iraq War. It was then that President Jacques Chirac refused to sanction an invasion of Iraq, scuppering the second UN resolution authorising the war. Angry Americans used a phrase from The Simpsons cartoon to call the French “cheese eating surrender monkeys”.

In terms of the Strauss-Kahn affair’s implications for Franco-American relations, it is fitting that a lawyer at his bail hearing referred to the Roman Polanski case. The film director escaped to France from the US in the 1970s before he could be sentenced for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. There is no extradition agreement between America and France, so Polanski was able to remain free.

Expressing disdain at the way France can sometimes treat its famous criminals, a chief assistant district attorney, Daniel Alonso, told a New York court: “He [Strauss-Kahn] would be living openly and notoriously in France, just like Roman Polanski.”

Polanski’s case has shown how the great and good in Paris society can turn a blind eye to sex crimes. As the Strauss-Kahn saga unfolds, many of us are glad that such a disgraceful attitude is at last being exposed to a worldwide audience. Arguments for keeping immorality among public figures hidden in the shadows are becoming increasingly weak, and there should be no question of allegations being kept secret. Unless the French can come to understand this, the Strauss-Kahn affair will further sully their country’s reputation.

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