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)

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