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The scandal of France: power and shame

The arrest in New York of the head of the International Monetary Fund and leading French politician on charges of sexual misconduct is a confusing and revelatory moment in France's public life. Whatever the legal outcome of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s case some uncomfortable truths have to be faced, says Patrice de Beer.
Patrice de Beer
8 June 2011

Almost everything has been said about Dominique Strauss-Kahn's case and almost everyone interested in this soap-opera has made up his or her mind. So, why bother to add another word regarding this legal, personal and political maelstrom over the inexplicable and unsavoury and encounter between the former director-general of the International Monetary Fund and a Guinean-born maid in a New York hotel?

There seems even less reason when it comes from a Frenchman (who by definition is regarded as a “perv” by American tabloids and shock-jock radio hosts); and worse, from a French journalist (thus someone who as “everybody knows” is too tame with regard to big-shots and did not do his homework on “DSK”).

But since, despite these evident disqualifications, I am offered space to comment, this is what I would say.

First, I feel personally ashamed, sorry, and flabbergasted (and I could use many other expletives). Ashamed as a Frenchman that this (mis)behaviour by one of my most prominent compatriots - whatever the legal findings - has tainted us all. The séducteur image long attached to us, which made us so popular in movies (see Maurice Chevalier or Charles Boyer) and to which we love to cling to, should only ever float on personal charm and consensuality and never be abused by force or predation.

But I also feel ashamed of myself as one of very many who - from the depth of our belief that Nicolas Sarkozy had harmed French society and of our desire to see the left win next elections - almost deliberately closed our ears and eyes to what we knew or had heard of DSK's predilections. The only “political” consolation is that it didn't occur during the campaign, when the scandal would have destroyed the hopes of so many more.

Second, I feel sorry for this poor woman. She is a presumed victim; just as DSK is presumed innocent. She is going to suffer even more under the aggressive investigation of a well-resourced defence team dedicated to win its case. And sorry that Parti Socialiste colleagues and friends of DSK, and noted Parisian intellectuals, have already judged - and blamed - her. “No one was killed in this incident”, grinned ex-culture minister Jack Lang; the respected socialist ex-justice minister Robert Badinter also spoke unambiguously in DSK’s defence. Too often in such circumstances, personal friendships, party loyalties or even gender solidarity act as blindfolds.

Third, I feel betrayed, alongside those who believed that DSK's political, diplomatic and financial skills (of the kind used over Europe’s financial crisis) were desperately needed to defeat “Sarko” -  and that these could be separated from his bling and womanising side. Whether proven guilty or not, his irrepressible sexual pandering has let many down, and given his rival another chance.

Fourth, I am astounded. How could a man so clever, so close to becoming the main contender against a discredited president, so aware of the fact that Sarkozy's henchmen were looking for a scandal, fall so ignominiously?

DSK’s profile was curated by a bright and confident public-relations team (from the Euro RSCG group), paid for via the fortune of his wife (former TV anchor Anne Sinclair); he had incurred media scorn for flaunting his wealth, most recently after driving an adviser’s luxury Porsche; he was a walking, heavy-breathing risk. He should have been monitored constantly, accompanied at all times by his wife, and medically treated. Yet when he booked himself into Manhattan's Sofitel Palace, he was on his own.

The French complex

Some in France pretend that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a plot devised by President Sarkozy or by dark forces in the United States (a story that suits both the country’s pervasive anti-Americanism and its craze for conspiracy theories). It will be seen whether there was any semblance of a honey-trap - but even if so, by allowing himself to fall into it he has disqualified himself from the race. The rumours of a deep game look as absurd as a recent pamphlet explaining how DSK had become a CIA agent; it was written by one of those who had tried to prove that 9/11 never happened. Now it seems this CIA operative has been framed by his new friends. A wilderness of distorted mirrors.

The closer, unavoidable issue entails some soul-searching. Much has been said about the French media. As a foreign correspondent, I was never involved in French politics. It is true that many journalists (not all) have long been indulgent towards men of power or jet-set figures. Some, however, have paid the price of irking them - by being fired by public or private media whose managers or owners were close to Sarkozy. Some female colleagues have privately told how they were harassed or offered sex by powerful men; but hardly any wrote about it, or had her testimonies published.

In France's republican monarchy, there is far too often overmuch respect for and restraint towards the powerful - including among the public. A crucial additional element here is that the French love their politicians to be seducers, with sexual vigour being viewed as a mark of their political strength.

It is fair to add that, in contrast to the invasive coverage of their British or American counterparts, the French media has always tried to observe a clear distinction between public and private lives; and, regarding the latter, between legal and illegal acts. Maybe it should not have ignored the fact that former president Francois Mitterrand had a daughter, Mazarine, with his long-term mistress; though adultery is not illegal. The problem is that he used France’s secret services to protect her and public property to house her, thus mixing his private life with his public one. But I feel proud that no French media outlet ever hounded the daughters of former presidents De Gaulle or Chirac, who lived with long-term illnesses. Journalism is not voyeurism.

The problem with DSK is that he was borderline. Both a seducer able to push, sometimes too far apparently, to fulfil his fancies; and a man so sure of his personal charm that he might not even have been aware he was harassing women - and so sure of himself that he could scarcely believe that a woman could be immune to his attractions. When, long before the New York incident, Jean Quatremer (the Liberation correspondent in Brussels) or the comedian Stéphane Guillon spoke about his sexual obsessions, many people thought they had gone too far. DSK, himself a lawyer, far from heeding the warning, threatened to sue.

The future task

The French pride themselves, rightly or wrongly, on their lighter approach to sex - from the medieval amour courtois, through the 18th-century playwright Marivaux's marivaudage, to present-day sexual freedoms. But this seduction game took place between consenting adults in a non-puritan society; and women's wit sometimes had the upper hand, as in Beaumarchais's play Figaro, source of Mozart's opera. As for the dark side of human nature, i.e. sexual harassment or rape, the French are no better or worse, or less hypocritical, than any other nation.

There are many laws on gender equality, but not are all well implemented. French public life remains (even if not alone in this) too male orientated. The government, parliament and businesses lack substantial female representation (a pitiful 17% in the national assembly). Many men still love telling heavily sexually explicit jokes, demeaning to women. And some women don't mind this situation. When asked in 2006 about her husband's reputation, Anne Sinclair answered that she felt “rather proud! For a politician, it is important to be able to seduce”.

Moreover, many women still prefer to vote for a man; during the 2007 presidential election, the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal was the victim of sexist heckling, including from female voters. DSK, whom she defeated during the primaries, had said about her that politics was not “a beauty contest”.

Every modern society is concerned to uphold the equality of women and men. Some rely on law, or societal evolution; others continue to rely on religion to maintain male supremacy, apparently a must for religious fundamentalists. But whether advanced by a grim puritanism or with a lighter, more consensual touch, what matters is that sexual equality - and respect by men for women - remains an everyday challenge. The DSK case is yet another warning of its scale.

It is too early to know whether this affair will have a profound impact on French society. So far, public opinion has been shocked by DSK's alleged sexual behaviour; it may be beginning to feel the same about his extravagant show of wealth. But I doubt the political world will be converted easily to gender equality. True, more harassers might be apprehended, more women might protest more forcefully - and more predators might be more careful, in words and deeds, not to get caught. But I fear that, in their deep minds, many will still hold onto the exhausted idea that manhood is power and power is the key ingredient in politics.

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