Politician's Arrest Sparks Soul-Searching In France

May 17, 2011
Originally published on May 17, 2011 8:21 pm

France is watching in shock as the story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn unfolds. After the initial surprise at the arrest of the International Monetary Fund head, some leapt to his defense, while others criticized what they called the brutalities of the American justice system.

Now France is coming to grips with the charges facing one of its star politicians, and that has provoked some major soul-searching.

Attitudes about the Strauss-Kahn affair have been changing on an almost hourly basis in France ever since the country woke up to the news that DSK, as he's known, had been arrested in New York for attempted rape and sexual assault.

That news was shocking enough, but nothing could prepare them for what they would see on their televisions on Monday: live footage of Strauss-Kahn being led away in handcuffs. In France, it is illegal to show pictures of a handcuffed person if he has not yet been convicted.

The second shock was when cameras inside the courtroom showed DSK being arraigned before the eyes of the whole world, like, said one commentator, a common criminal. Cameras are not allowed in French courtrooms, and those pictures shocked the French to their core, says Francois d'Orcival, of the newsmagazine Valeurs Actuelles.

"These images were brutally real for French people," d'Orcival says. "Before that, they had only seen this in Hollywood films. It's a huge difference — we felt it viscerally, that this man, who in France is a star, is going to be ground up by the American judicial machine."

Gerard Carreyrou, an op-ed writer at the newspaper France Soir, says many people are criticizing the American system, but at least it treats everybody the same. The French system, he says, hasn't changed since Louis XIV, and he calls the criticism hypocritical.

"In France, when you're a very important person, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn is, you have always a way to get out of some situations," Carreyrou says.

Bringing Private Lives Public

Strauss-Kahn has long had a reputation in France as a womanizer. It was often talked about in parties or at society dinners, but it was never exposed in the press. There are two reasons for that, says political analyst Nicole Bacharan. One is that France has powerful privacy laws; the other is society's attitude.

"There's a very high tolerance for adultery and womanizing," Bacharan says. "Doesn't mean that everyone approves of it; it means that people draw the line, 'OK, that's a private matter as long as it doesn't interfere with public, political life.' "

But the revelation that that code of silence may be enabling powerful men to indulge in unacceptable sexual behavior is starting to change attitudes.

On a popular television talk show Tuesday, male and female panelists spoke about how men who hit on women in France were protected by a sort of silence, or a "boys will be boys" attitude, and said that sexual harassment is not taken seriously enough.

The lawyer for a journalist who has accused Strauss-Kahn of attacking her nine years ago says she is now planning to press charges because she believes she will finally be taken seriously.

A video of her describing the incident in detail in 2007 is only now circulating on the Web.

Thalia Breton of the feminist group Osez le Feminisme says the way the DSK scandal is being discussed by the media and French society is shameful.

"We're seeing very bad jokes on the Internet," she says. "It's clear that sexual violence toward women is still minimized and not taken seriously in the collective imagination. This is not a question of morals and libido — we're talking about a possible crime."

The French media are being criticized from outside and within for not doing their job properly. Many in people in France believe the Strauss-Kahn affair, no matter how it turns out, is a watershed moment that will bring permanent change to French media and society.

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As Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, the soul-searching has begun.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Attitudes to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair have been changing on an almost hourly basis in France, ever since the country woke up to the news that DSK, as he's known here, had been arrested in New York for an attempted rape and sexual assault. The news was shocking enough, but nothing could prepare the French for what they would see on their televisions on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSCAST)

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man: Dominique Strauss-Kahn...

BEARDSLEY: A second shock was when cameras inside the courtroom showed DSK being arraigned before the eyes of the whole world like, said one commentator, a common criminal. Cameras are not allowed in French courtrooms and those pictures shocked the French to their core, says François d'Orcival of the newsmagazine Valeurs Actuelles.

FRAN: (Through Translator) These images were brutally real for French people. Before that they had only seen this in Hollywood films. It's a huge difference. We felt it viscerally that this man, who in France is a star, is going to be ground up by the American judicial machine.

BEARDSLEY: Gerard Carreyrou is an op-ed writer at the newspaper France-Soir. He says many people are criticizing the American system, but at least it treats everybody the same. The French system, he says, hasn't changed since Louis XIV and he calls the criticism hypocritical.

GERARD CARREYROU: In France, when you are a VIP - very important person, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn is - you have always a way to get out of some situations.

BEARDSLEY: Strauss-Kahn has long had a reputation in France as a womanizer. It was often talked about in parties or at society dinners, but it was never exposed in the press. There are two reasons for that, says political analyst Nicole Bacharan. One is that France has powerful privacy laws. The other is society's attitude.

NICOLE BACHARAN: There is a very high tolerance for, you know, adultery, womanizing. It doesn't mean that everybody approves of it. It means that people draw the line, okay, that's a private matter, as long as it doesn't interfere with public or political life.

BEARDSLEY: But the revelation that that code of silence may be enabling powerful men to indulge in unacceptable sexual behavior is starting to change attitudes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW)

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Woman: (French language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Thalia Breton, of the feminist group Osez Le Feminisme, says the way the DSK scandal is being discussed by the media and French society is shameful.

THALIA BRETON: (Through Translator) We're seeing very bad jokes on the Internet. It's clear that sexual violence toward women is still minimized and not seriously in the collective imagination.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.