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Friday, May 20, 2011

Demystifying the lovable French rogue

Voila, a selection of comments in the French media regarding the sexual assault charges brought against former IMF President Dominique Strauss-Kahn:

"I feel nothing but loathing for the judge who delivered him to that pack of newshounds in front of the police station, on the pretence that he was a citizen like any other."
- French intellectual Bernard-Henry Levy

"[DSK's media exposure] creates feelings and reactions which go far beyond what is, essentially, after all just another minor alleged crime."
- French commentator Sophie De Menthion

"[It was] more likely an act of imprudence, a bit of domestic tupping."
- Left-wing journalist Jean-Francois Kahn

"His treatment by the New York judge, police and press has reawakened the anti-Americanism that is latent in many French souls."
- Hugh Schofield - BBC, Paris

 "Unheard-of brutality, cruelty and violence".
- Former Minister Elisabeth Guigou’s description of images of her friend DSK being led from the police station.


First of all : Ummmm... sorry guys, I didn't realise we were still referring to sexual assault as "an act of imprudence" in 2011. But then again, maybe I need to reread my copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. 

As for "domestic tupping" - a poor choice of words? Are humans still tupping domestically?

Husband : "I say dear, why don't you put the kids to bed, I sort of feel like tupping... domestically."
Wife : "Will that be consensual or non-consensual tonight darling?"


All linguistic fun aside, there is a darker, more disturbing side to the above comments.

Many French journalists and politicians have aggressively defended DSK's "présomption d'innocence". It's important to say at the very start that they are right to do so. As a lawyer, I am fully aware that one of the very cornerstones of criminal justice is that an accused person should be considered innocent until it is proven beyond reasonable doubt that they are guilty.

However, regardless of DSK's alleged guilt, the above comments, [and perhaps more worryingly, the general sentiment that they seem to represent] are further evidence of the pervasive attitude of permissiveness in France when it comes to the affairs [sexual or otherwise] of French politicians. Such affairs are both widely known and well documented. In fact, when it comes to being elected as the President of France, licentious virility appears to be a pre-requisite, rather than an impediment to power. See for example: the cover-up of President Mitterand's illegitimate daughter during his Presidency; or Le Super Menteur himselfJacques Chirac's trial for embezzlement of public funds in the Clearstream affair; or more recently, the Elysée's crackdown on media coverage of Sarkozy's rumoured extramarital affairs. 

If the French are not especially proud of this fact, they are, at the very least, proud of the domestic laws that enable such behaviour, that is, France's strict privacy laws and the general acceptance of the need for a clear separation between the public and private lives of politicians.

This attitude is, in many ways, admirable. Monogamy has absolutely nothing, or at least very little, to do with inspired political leadership. [Just ask Bill Clinton.]

However, when it comes to DSK's situation, the facts are very different. Here, DSK is not merely accused of having a wandering eye, or of possessing a weakness for les femmes fatales. Here, the charges are criminal.

And yet, collective French outrage seems not to derive from the fact that a man widely tipped as being the next French President might have committed sexual assault. Instead, outrage focuses on "the judge who delivered him to that pack of newshounds" and on the fact that such a man should be publicly humiliated to the point of being treated as if he were "a citizen like any other". 

And therein lies the heart of the fallacy of extending the general permissive French attitude with regard to political scandal to DSK's current situation. For DSK is a citizen like any other, just as his French political colleagues are eux aussi, citoyens de la France.

His behaviour, if proven, will not be able to be explained away as a manifestation of some quaint Gallic cultural trait. DSK will not be able to claim he is the victim of an overly-developed but entirely excusable pre-pubescent desire for the female form. His behaviour must meet a much stricter and less sympathetic test - a criminal one.

And yet, the myth of the French political man, a man seemingly at the mercy of his sexual desire for the fairer race, continues to be both understood and excused by politicians and commentators alike in France. 

As DSK said himself, "I love women, et alors?" 

Well DSK, it seems that this time you may have been a very naughty boy indeed. But I guess, in your defence, they are very pretty, and you are very important. Now come here so I can rustle your hair... Right. There you go. Now run along. You lovable rogue.

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