Strauss-Kahn arrest - are the French too soft on the rich and powerful?
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The furore in the world’s media over IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest has led to an impassioned debate. Are the French too soft on men in power and too tolerant of their sexual peccadilloes?
The debate has not lacked self-righteousness on both sides and sometimes seems to take already established prejudice as its starting point.
But the difference is real and can be seen in the media’s handling of the scandal.
While US tabloids broke the news with headlines like “Le Perv” (Daily News) and “Sleazy Money” (New York Post), “DSK Out” (Libération) and “Thunderbolt on the presidential election” (Le Figaro) were about as daring as it got in the French press.
That’s a sign of French obsequiousness towards the rich and powerful, according to most English-speaking and some Francophone commentators … or vulgarity and failure to respect the presumption of innocence on the part of "Anglo-Saxons”, according to the French media’s defenders.
Cultural differences over what constitutes a scandal and what should be said in public certainly exist.
France is the country where a president managed to have a parallel family throughout his term of office, without the media publishing a word about it – a state of affairs which would be unthinkable in either the UK or the US. But, although taxpayers paid for their upkeep, many argue that François Mitterrand’s peculiar private life did not make him a worse – or, for that matter, a better – president, so where was the public interest?
The argument that a public figure’s sex life is a private matter, is widely accepted in France, in principle, if not in dinner party discussions, and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s perceived lack of discretion in that department seems to have contributed to the slump in his popularity.
But, although much of the coverage of DSKgate shows a disturbing tendency to confuse rape and infidelity, the IMF chief is not accused of cheating on his wife but of a criminal act, which all but the most cavemanish male chauvinist regard as a serious one. Reporting that is surely justified, especially in the light of Strauss-Kahn’s apparent presidential ambitions.
Some French commentators believe that, had the allegations been made in France, they would have been hushed up.
Veteran feminist Gisèle Halimi has said that she is “certain that, if this affair had happened in France, we would never have known about it”, while Isabelle Germain, of Les Nouvelles News, argues - in a British paper – that a “code of silence reigns”.
Although, as our press reviewer Michael Fitzpatrick has pointed out, French press coverage has varied according to the political sympathies of the different papers, a certain caste solidarity does seem to have operated in DSK’s favour.
“In France, the case has swept to the top of the news agenda. But it has done so with an unequivocal message: poor DSK!” comments Germain.
Not only have Strauss-Kahn’s friends, such as publicity-addicted philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy, claimed that the IMF boss has been “thrown to the dogs”, but his political opponents in Sarkozy’s UMP have been remarkably restrained, with family-values champion Christine Boutin speculating that he might be the victim of a honeytrap.
As Halimi and Germain point out, sympathy for the possible victim has been far less evident.
That was especially true after the publication of photos of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs, looking dishevelled and humiliated as he left a police station on his way to apply for bail.
Former justice minister Elizabeth Guigou said that publishing such photos is illegal in France – for nobodies as much as for bigwigs – thanks to a law passed on her watch. Guigou, a Socialist like Strauss-Kahn, judged them “of an unheard-of brutality and cruelty”. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers say they are considering legal action on the question.
Ironically, although our reporter Clea Caulcutt found relative indifference on the streets of Paris, the publication seems to have increased public sympathy for Strauss-Kahn and an opinion poll showed 57 per cent of French people believing he was the victim of a plot.
Why would that be?
Many people seem to find it difficult to believe that someone so highly placed could risk all for a fleeting and forced sexual encounter. Others point out that certain people would profit from Strauss-Kahn being knocked out of the 2012 presidential race. After all, over the last few months they have been subject to a barrage of commentary – in both the French and international media – assuring them that Strauss-Kahn is the only viable alternative to Sarkozy, who does not enjoy universal acclaim these days.
Franco-American tension also probably plays a part. It’s not true, as the Los Angeles Times apparently believes, that the majority of French people hate the US. A large number, from Globish-speaking businesspeople to would-be rappers in the banlieue, have embarrassing wannabe-American tendencies. But that doesn’t mean everyone has forgotten the Freedom Fries, “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys” diatribes in the US at the start of the Iraq war or British tabloid “Hop-off you frogs” rants. So, yes, some resentment does persist.
And then there is the fact that the case has not yet gone to trial. Anglophones may scorn the French media’s forelock-touching tendencies but are those American headlines such a great example of journalistic impartiality? And, with Rupert Murdoch’s UK titles hit by a phone-tapping scandal, does France need to adopt British or American tabloid culture?
Whether it does or not, it is probably going to get an increasing measure of it. The internet makes it increasingly pointless to try to enforce laws like the one that Guigou is so proud of. It also means that editors know that they risk losing readers to foreign media if they sit on stories.
France now has a number of muck-raking journals and sites, ranging from the venerable Le Canard enchainé to the controversial Médiapart, getting up the noses of the rich and powerful. So things are changing. It remains to be seen if it’s for the better.