Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Strauss-Khan Causes France's Soul Searching.

The scandal of Dominique Strauss-Khan’s arrest has caused all sorts of soul searching in France regarding privacy, journalism, politics and even male-female relationships.

The national trauma runs so deep that the day following the news, a majority of French people was even ready to believe it was all a set-up, and while cross-cultural differences between France and US have been the talk of the nation, at times, the tone has also smacked of anti-Americanism.

Following the dramatic perp walk that shocked the French, it turns out that DSK’s record may have been darker that previously assumed - he was probably not just a womanizer and also has a track record of sexual harassment and possibly sexual assault (see here, or here).

The most talked about case is that of Tristane Banon, a journalist and writer who has publicly claimed DSK tried to rape her during an interview in 2002 (NYTimes). My first reaction was “How convenient to come up with something like this NOW”. But it turns out that she actually “talked about the alleged assault in a television interview in 2007, saying that a politician — whom she later identified as Mr. Strauss-Kahn — had tried to rape her when she went to interview him for a book.”. So why wasn’t this known? Well, French journalists say this was unfounded because Ms Banon didn’t file a complaint, and why didn’t she? Get this: because her mother who was a Socialist Party official, persuaded her at the time not to file suit against a man who was close to her family and to their politics:
Listen, you know, if he had raped you, I wouldn’t have any hesitation, but that wasn’t the case. He sexually assaulted you, there wasn’t any rape per se; so until the end of your life, you’re going to have on your résumé, you know, Tristane Banon is the girl who ... ’” (The Guardian)
This alone is very telling of something rotten in the country of fine living.

 Of course, it does not necessarily mean that DSK is guilty but it means he has a poor track record and if the (regular) French people didn’t know about it, that’s because most French journalists chose to ignore it. Yet, DSK could have very well become the next French president – he was by far the best-placed candidate to beat Nicolas Sarkozy.
This has rightfully led the French media to questioning their practice, sometimes defending it, sometimes criticizing it. Le Monde called it the omerta [code of silence] of the French media.
It is a much more complex issue that it may appear to most Americans.
First because France has strict Defamation And Privacy laws that makes it easy to sue for defamation and force someone to publish a retraction.

These laws are a reflection of a cultural trait of the French people – a strong sense of privacy. Walk in any French suburb or village, and you’ll see that all houses are separated by walls and fences, the curtains are drawn and the shutters are closed at night so people cannot see inside. As Raymonde Caroll greatly showed in her book, even inside the home, the rooms which are “off-limits” are closed (this is particularly the case of the bedroom). The French show clear separation between what is private and what is public (this may be because the French have an almost clanic view of family life.).
In the same way, there is national consensus that the public interest stops at the bedroom door, even for public figures. Therefore affairs are tolerated as long as they remain private. (Which is why Sarkozy’s public expression of his love life have been frown upon as it breached the consensus).

In addition, it is true that the French have a very different view of sex and politics probably due to its more libertine tradition. Sexual indiscretion will not be the downfall of a French politician (as long as it is consensual and private). The French were not so much shocked that Mitterrand had a daughter with his mistress (which was nonetheless not revealed to the public until he was out of office) but that he illegally wiretapped journalists.
 One journalist had the temerity to bring [having a kid out of wedlock] up. Mitterrand fixed the daring journalist in the eye, leaned across the table toward him, and mockingly replied, "Yes, I have a [bastard] daughter. Et, alors?!" The message was clear: Yeah, and it's none of your business, so keep your mouth shut and paper clear of it until I'm ready to inform the public, if you know what's good for you. There was no further mention of the situation until Mitterrand's funeral, when his mistress and the daughter appeared as chief mourners with his widow. (Time)

In fact, some (but not all) may see an affair as a badge of honor – sexual prowess shows a political man is fully and physically capable of running the country. My take is that this is a legacy from the monarchy when it was important for the king to have an heir but also countless mistresses to prove his physical fitness.
The happy consequence of this is that French voters judge their politicians more according to their projects than their personal lives, and since most political platforms are not based on traditional family values anyway, there is no call for hypocrisy. It also makes politicians more immune to potential blackmail.
But there is a clear difference between having an affair and sexual assault and/or harassment which are very serious crimes in France too but those crimes have to be reported and clearly they are not always so.
The problem is that a highly acceptable sexual environment may blur the lines between a consensual affair and sexual coercion and harassment, especially because women too play the game of seduction and/or put up with it – many of them actually use it as a weapon.
Anne Sinclair, DSK’s wife was once asked if she suffered because of her husband's reputation as a seducer, she answered:
"No, if anything I am rather proud! It's important for a man in politics to be able to seduce. As long as I seduce him and he seduces me, it is enough.". (Time)


But a clear line must and can be drawn between seduction and sexual assault. The dark side of DSK’s sexual life should have been scrutinized, and investigated, especially in the case of Tristane Banon, even if she did not file a complaint. (If it is true, it is unlikely this was the first time it happened – DSK is 62 years old.). 
I understand that digging up dirt may not feel like serious journalism but DSK was a highly influential public figure likely to become France’s next president.  
Unfortunately with the exception of Le Canard Enchainé, French newspapers do not practice journalistic investigation like the U.S..
France also has a long history of political pressure from people in power. The French press is dependent on government subsidies and they belong to powerful groups whose CEOs are friends of politicians in high places. How can we expect them to play their role of check and balance. (here and here)

In the end, the question is not about France losing its cultural traits and becoming like the U.S.. It is about common decency and integrity, universal values that should be upheld. This nation has to make sure its privacy laws are not an excuse to let the rich and powerful get away with their wrongdoings. 
There is hope that this could be France's Anita Hill's moment, as Time pits. Too bad we are 20 years behind. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Khan and the Perp Walk - A French American Perspective.

"If you don't want the perp walk, don't do the crime" (New York Magazine)

This is how NY City mayor Bloomberg responded to the NYPD's decision to have IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Khan do the “perp walk”  (i.e. parading of an arrested suspect in a public place).

More than the news of the arrest of the IMF chief as the pictures of DSK (as he is known in France) in handcuffs and later at the hearing before the judge that have caused shock and awe in France. 

The reason is also that DSK is a very familiar and popular figure in France (he was actually considered the front runner for next year’s presidential elections) so his treatment by the NYPD, while completely normal in the U.S. (anyone familiar with 'Law and Order' would know) is particularly humiliating to the French. 

How to put the “perp walk” into cultural perspective?
  • I believe the perp walk is first and foremost a show of force by law enforcement to convince public opinion that everyone is treated equally, the powerful like the commoner. The theatrical aspect of the perp reflects the American taste for drama but it is also meant to convince the electorate to vote for those who enforce the law.
  • The perp walk may also be the product of a judicial system which is adversarial, meaning that the prosecutor needs to convince the jury of the suspect’s guilt.  In the French system,  the prosecution (which represents the neutrality of government) is supposed to investigate the case both for the prosecution and for the defense in pursuit of the truth and has no interest in presenting the suspect in a negative light. (See Eva Joly's view in this post)
  • Finally, one can see in the prep walk an old American tradition of public humiliation which makes it acceptable to the US public opinion. And this is not only in Hawthrone’s novel or in political sex scandal but also in the legal decisions in some states. (see here or here). 
But beyond the cultural explanation though, lies the problem that the perp walk totally disregards the presumption of innocence of the suspect (especially when his public image is linked to his power), and Mayor Bloomberg’s statement reflects exactly this - it assumes that those who do the walk, did the crime. 

In continental Europe, the presumption of innocence is enforced much more strictly, even at the expense of the freedom of the press. Prep walks are not only not the customs in France, there are also illegal on two grounds:
-the presumption of innocence
-and the protection of personal dignity, understood as control over one’s public image.
In the same way, cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. 

This is interesting because we are here at the core of cross-cultural differences between France – and even Europe at large – and the United-States concerning freedom of the press, the right of privacy and even the view of government.
In the U.S. the greatest threat to privacy is believed to come from the government and the media are seen as a counter-power that protects the citizen from the abuse of government. This is precisely reflected in the First Amendment to the US Constitution
In France and in most of Europe, it is the other way around - the government (through strict laws) is supposed to protect the citizen against the abuse of the media. This is because the government is supposed to be neutral and fair(er), just like the judicial system based on the Napoleon code assumes.
 (more later)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

THIS WEEK : DSK,Torture, Mitterrand, Porn, White House Ghosts, Floods and Drought.


The PRESIDENTIAL LANDSCAPE IN FRANCE is likely to change. This Sunday morning I woke up on the incredible news that the head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Khan was arrested for alleged sexual assault (NYTimes) - which by now I'm sure everyone has read:
The reason this is so huge of course is that  DSK (as he is called in France) has been expected to seek the Socialist nomination for the presidential elections in France in 2012 and he was a favorite in the polls.
It is hard to imagine that he would be so stupid in his situation but then again, who would have thought Clinton would be so stupid too. Besides, this is not the first time DSK is involved in a sex scandal. So is this a cabal? 
Impossible to tell but as Arthur Goldhammer puts it, "it is difficult to believe that the police would have arrested such an important figure without probable cause, and the uncertainty, not to mention the seriousness of the charge, will surely be enough to preclude a presidential run".

BIN LADEN AND TORTURE - even though John McCain has been a flip-flop on so many issues, including torture apparently, I must say that his Op-Ed against torture in the Washington Post this week was a welcoming relief in the face of vindication of torture by the GOP

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading
And yes, I agree with McCain, the "very idea of America' is at stake. That torture should even be so openly discussed in America today baffles me. By doing this, the Republicans undermine American values and show the world how weak Americans can be. They make bin Laden alive again. What a shame!  

MITTERRAND came to power 30 years ago and it was commemoration time in France, and an opportunity to try to understand this complex but fascinating character. The day he was elected was cheerful and even as young boy, I remember the excitement. His greatest accomplishment in my view is the abolition of the death penalty and the expansion of cultural and social freedoms. On the other hand, his economic policy was a disaster (especially the costly nationalizations) which is why he had to turn a 180° and go for "changement" only 2 years after being elected. That being said, he was a remarkably shrewd politician and definitely the smartest president this country has ever had, and his cynicism matched his Machiavellian intelligence, which I can't help admiring. (Cultural perspective on Mitterrand's era in the New Yorker)

THE CONQUEST - Talking about fascinating stories, I'm looking forward to this new movie drama called La Conquête on how Nicolas Sarkozy came to power. No matter how good or bad the movie may be, this is great news - the first French film ever made about a sitting president. Hopefully, it will be distributed in the US as well (See NYTimes article and the French trailer here)

BIN LADEN AND PORN :by the way, did bin Laden really have secret porn stash

POLITICAL STING OPERATION - I am reading this fascinating book on American presidential speech-writers called "WHITE HOUSE GHOSTS" by Robert Schlesinger  and came across this fascinating yet unkown story : 
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arranged a drug buy with a dealer four or five blocks from the White House. But they were asked to move it down closer to the White House and so they lured the drug dealer into Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue so that four days later, president G. H Bush could sell his war on drugs better and say/
"This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement agents in a a park just across the street from the White House."
The result was a successful the if-you-can-buy-crack-across-the-street-from-the-White-House-then-you-can-buy-it-anywhere refrain. 
For details read the book (p.372-3) or read this. (This story was actually revealed two weeks later by the Washington Post's Michael Isikoff)

The scariest story this week in my opinion is the FLOODS in the US and the DROUGHT in Europe. The most serious consequences should be expected.
In France this is the driest spell in 50 years (Bloomberg) and the European Union wheat harvest, which accounts for a fifth of world production, will fall this year as drought cuts yields in France and Poland, (Bloomberg)

Meanwhile, "the historic flooding in the South is poised to wreak havoc on the economy at multiple levels, likely putting local farmhands out of work while contributing to the nationwide rise in food prices." (Foxnews)
It is hard to imagine this is not somewhat related to climate change. (here or here), and the idea that what has been set in motion cannot be reversed is really scary, I think. 
But no one seems to really care and would rather talk about the Cannes Festival

French View of Welfare Shifts towards America.

The controversy in France this week was the criticism of France’s welfare system by the Minister for European Affairs who called the excesses of French “assistanat” [a derogatory term which can be loosely translated as “nanny state”] the “cancer” of French society (France 24) – a provocative statement if any in a country where social policy has been more or less a national consensus.
In practical term, the young Minister, Laurent Wauquiez (who is seen as a moderate in the Sarkozy government) proposes to force welfare recipients to do community work in compensation for the checks.
First a note of cultural background – while this criticism of welfare may not be such a provocative statement for the conservatives in the U.S, it is something unheard of in France. It has actually created division even in the ruling conservative party (UMP) and the young Minister was strongly criticized by the Prime Minister.
That being said, it has also been suggested that the “nanny state” (l’assistanat”) could be one of Sarkozy’s themes of choice for his reelection campaign in 2012 (Le Figaro).

This leads me to think that we may be in for some serious cultural change in France.
Since World War II, “social solidarity” has been considered a universal service which guarantees a minimal level of well-being and social support for all French citizens. It is not without fault and it is very costly. For better or for worse, the notion of “solidarity” is not simply part of the French Social Protection system; it is also part of its national identity (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité) - very much like ‘freedom’ (including economic freedom) is part of the US identity. 

First let’s look at the obvious differences between Europe and the U.S. :
  • the European governments redistribute income on a much larger scale than the
  • European social programs are more generous and reach a larger part of the
  • The European tax systems are more progressive.
  • European regulation is more intrusive, including in the labor market and in the protection of the poor.
There are various tentative explanations for these differences. As this paper by the Harvard Institute of Economic research suggests, some of those differences may derive from differences in ways of thinking and in ideologies. In other words, they may have been shaped by culture and history :

According to the World Value Survey:
  • 29% of Americans think that the poor are trapped in poverty;
  • 60%of Europeans believe the same.
  • 60% of Americans believe that the poor are lazy
  • 26% of Europeans share that view.
You might think this is because the United-States has more social mobility. But as the Harvard paper explains, there is no evidence that shows America to be a significantly more mobile society than Europe. (something we have already discussed on this blog) so either Americans overestimate social mobility in their country or Europeans underestimate it. 

Another possible explanations (not favored by the Harvard paper but one I like) is that two World Wars destroyed so much of European societies that the Socialist and Communist parties were able to take hold and influence policies (even if they didn’t rule), especially after right-wing governments lost their appeal after the defeat of fascist governments throughout Europe. At the same time, in this context of ample destruction,  only governments could manage the national efforts necessary to rebuild and help the millions who lost everything. 

Besides, America had a vast ‘open’ land which allowed many workers to go west for economic opportunities instead of revolting or striking. This historical context may have made welfare and strong social policies more acceptable and necessary in Europe than in the United-States. 

The Harvard Paper has two other explanations: 

One lies in a difference in political institutions: Contrary to Europe America has hardly any type of proportional representation which tends to empower the left, and has more checks and balances with the explicit goal of limiting political extremism and expropriation of private property by the state.

The other, according to the paper is American racial heterogeneity given than in more homogeneous societies it is easier for the relatively well-off to see the poor as themselves, and less so in a society with racial cleavages.
The paper finally evokes other possible explanations such as a culture of risk and individual success transmitted by immigrants to America or the Protestant Calvinistic views that tend to see success as God’s blessing. 

These are interesting explanations that make sense to me. But within the different cultural tendencies in Europe or the U.S. , there are also political patterns that remain along the lines of right vs. left, and in any given country, conservatives have a harsher view of the poor than progressives.
In the US it is the Republicans who are trying to trim welfare again, in France it is the conservative parties and the far-right. It is the old Victorian idea of the “undeserving poor”, and it is shared not only by rich people but also by the working poor.
At the core of this, there is the view that enough poor are taking advantage of the system and do not want to work that it is worth screening the worthy ones and make it harder for all of them. I do not deny there are bad apples, but the question is whether you believe the bad apples are numerous enough that it is worth stigmatizing an entire category of people.  Call me naïve if you wish, but  I do not subscribe to the view that most people on welfare like it this way. It is not just that a question of money but also of personal worth. 

Unfortunately, it is clear that this view is becoming increasingly popular in France, whether this is due to the economic crisis or to greater racial heterogeneity (and the view that immigrants and their children have become increasingly the beneficiaries of social welfare at the expense of the working middle-class).
A recent poll shows that 70% of the French favor the new proposed scheme that would force welfare recipients to do community work in compensation for the checks. In 2010, another poll showed that 80% of the French thought there was too much of the “nanny state” (“assistanat”) in France. This is definitely a major shift towards a much harder social system which may a sign of the times, just like the rise of the Tea Party in the U.S. or the far right in Europe.