Thursday, May 19, 2011

Difference in French, American Attitudes comes to forefront in DSK Arrest

It's hard to miss the culture clash in the differing coverage the American, British and French press give the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), the French IMF-head who was arrested in New York city after allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel maid.

The French journalists and public are particularly upset about the perceived lack of dignity with which Strauss-Kahn is being treated. They feel the pictures of him, unshaven and unkempt and handcuffed after his night in jail, are degrading to his individual dignity. They proudly point to French laws that forbid photographing suspects before they have been formally convicted of a crime. They feel that allowing journalists in the courtroom, undermines the legal process and turns the proceedings into a media circus.

The Americans, and to a lesser degree the British, feel the French press is to blame for a so-called "conspiracy of silence" that protected a "sexual predator." The French respond that the private sex lives of public figures are not their concern unless this somehow unduly impacts the manner in which those public figures perform the jobs they were elected to fulfill. For instance, not interested that former French president, Mittérand had a long-standing mistress and a love-child. If he had been using public funds to maintain his mistress and love child it would have been another story.

Apparently, DSK's third wife, Anne Sinclair, is not bothered by her husband's reputation for running after women. In public, she proclaims that she is proud of it and that it is "important for a politician to be able to seduce." I agree with the French press' restraint in reporting on this aspect of politician's lives. However, they need to understand that if the US press seems to go too far in the other extreme, it is because American politicians, are held to a different standard. In the US, for better or worse, demonstrating an upstanding personal life is part of how many politicians, especially those of the conservative Republican stripe, sell themselves to the American people. So it does make sense, that if the politician has campaigned on a "family-values" platform, which, in the US, means marital fidelity, or supports a very anti-gay conservative platform, then is revealed in the act of picking up men in airport restrooms, it makes sense to expose them. Meanwhile in the case of US politicians who did not campaign on the conservative "family values" platform or pretend in anyway that their personal life was a mirror for their qualities in government, I feel we should leave their private lives alone. While I did not like his equivocation on a lot of other issues, I never felt Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was a matter of interest for the American people and the American government. His election campaign was based on the economy, not his upstanding private life.

The conservative American argument is that a person's personal life is a reflection of their probable probity in public office. I disagree. While it would be nice to believe that having a reproach-free private life guarantees the ability to successfully govern, it's just impossible to demonstrate this correlation based on historical examples. Presidents like FDR and JFK were arguably successful presidents, and fidelity to their wives was not their strong point. Meanwhile, I have never heard any real reproach on Barack Obama's qualities as a husband and father, yet that doesn't stop American conservatives from lambasting his presidency. On the contrary, they supported John McCain, who emerged from his POW experience to find that his wife who had remained faithful and supported him the whole time of his imprisonment had become handicapped and aged badly. He promptly divorced her to marry a much younger heiress with a politically-connected father...yet this never seemed to bother the "family values" party.

Back to DSK, what does shock me from the French media analysis is their failure to differentiate from consensual sex and sexual aggression. They wash their hands of DSK's past, saying that they never investigated French journalist, Tristane Banon's account that DSK tried to rape her when she met him for an interview almost a decade ago because the alleged victim never formally denounced her aggressor. Apparently they all knew this was DSK, even though his name was deleted from the report. I disagree with their failure to investigate. The most most cursory glance at Miss Banon's profile would suggest that her mother's affiliation with the Socialist party, her family friendship with DSK's daughter, the fact that his second wife was her godmother and her position as a young journalist who did not want to be identified as "the woman who had a problem with a politician" explain why she did not denounce him. Her own mother counseled against it. However, the violence of Ms. Banon's account and the fact that she had so little personally to gain by making the accusation (rather the reverse) should have inspired them to look further into the story. One interesting contradiction I noted is that the American press and legal system is more solicitous in protecting the privacy of the alleged victim. They have not published her name; whereas the French press has.

As far as precedents go, most Americans are resentful that the French failed to extradite film director, Roman Polanski. Way to go France, glad you think the fact that he's a great film director and we're such Puritans who fail to "appreciate the pleasures of the flesh" excuses the fact that a 43-yr old man should have stood trial for drugging, raping and sodomizing a 13 year-old American girl.

Only one journalist I came across in yesterday's Libération suggested that there is something wrong when the entire press corp of a country knows that they cannot send female journalists alone to interview a certain politician. In the same issue of Libé, Anne Sugier, President of the International League of Women's Rights is the only person who seemed to express any sympathy for the alleged victim's dignity and status. Meanwhile, French lawyer, Matthieu Bouchier, says that the physical part of the process of being detained and charged with a crime and the prison conditions in France are very similar to those in the US. The difference is that the French are not aware of it, because the media is not allowed to show it.

Frankly I am not at all sympathetic to those who complain about the humiliation to France of showing DSK in handcuffs. Sufficient evidence compelled the New York police to detain him and investigate him for a crime in the US. There is nothing special about the way DSK is being treated, except for the degree of media interest in covering it. Maybe if this had happened to an American of similar stature in France he would have been given more special treatment. This could not happen in the US. The underpinning of the US democratic ethos is that we CANNOT show that one of the most powerful men in the world gets different treatment from a common perp charged with a sex crime (even if this is not really true, once the wealthy person's expensive legal defense kicks in). Welcome to "Law and Order SVU". Nowhere, do I see any French appreciation of a justice system where an immigrant woman with no friends who works as a hotel maid can charge a wealthy and powerful man of a crime and be taken seriously. In fact, in fact they might take a look at the special immunity they give their elected officials, and their privacy and libel laws because there are plenty of financial(not sexual!) misdeeds that occupants of France's highest elected offices seem to get away with over the years.

Meanwhile, I agree that the American legal system is too much of a media circus with judges, defense lawyers and the prosecution, displaying a rather disgusting theatricality and self-promotion. I also agree that the American press is pretty dismal in its reporting in general, with a hyper-local emphasis and that the more respectable press is chasing ratings by digging deeper and deeper down into the "People" magazine and "National Enquirer" territory.

The US public has an insatiable appetite for police and law and order television dramas, and the formula for success there depends on contrasting the high position of the suspected criminal (international banker, wealthy man, possible next president of France) with the lowly status of his victim (immigrant hotel maid, with few friends and no family in the US). The US loves to build people up, but it also loves to take them down. They are not alone in their appetite for schadenfreude. Regardless of his professional competence, long before this latest incident, Dominique Strauss-Kahn came across as a very arrogant man, with a predatory relationship towards women (even if no proven past of sexual violence - much of this would qualify as harassment), whose taste for the luxury life contrasted with his Socialist party political affiliation - he embodied "la gauche caviar" - the caviar left.

Some of this stuff just doesn't translated literally into English. My favorite lost-in-translation? "Hot rabbit" which comes from the French "chaud lapin". The more Classical allusion: satyr -- too educated a reference for everyday American idiom. Frisky animals in English? Common and low-class: "horn dog" or dated: "randy goat". Admiring French ajectival phrase "The Great Seducer". American, Clinton-years reference: "has a zipper problem". Looking at DSK's personal appearance, tempting to reflect on Kissinger's "Power is the greatest aphrodisiac!" What country does DSK wish this had happened in? Italy!

I grabbed the last copy of Le Canard Enchainé at my news-stand yesterday to see what France's premier satirical paper had to say about the Affair. Here are some sample headlines and clips: "Erection, piège a cons!"Les larmes de Sarko-codile". Cartoon on Sarko's UMP party's real reaction to the news: "We should respect a decent period of reserve (with regard to DSK news). At least until the champagne cools!" Week's featured quote: Bernard Henri-Lévy (rather pretentious media-philosopher), we have these too in the US but none of the mainstream public has heard of them. When was the last time somebody outside academia cared what Noam Chomsky had to say about current events? "Do you think for one moment I would be friends with this man if he was a sexual predator?" "Canard Enchainé" response: "Imagine that DSK's lawyer forgot to present this argument to the American judge.

2 comments:

Marcf said...

the language differences tell a lot. It is true that the 'great seducer' is a flattering phrase that even his wife would embrace. The truth is that every culture lives with its contradictions, the pictorial you make of the family values man that stray is right on.

Warren said...

The only unbiased and comprehensive analysis I've read so far on this situation....great read