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. 

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