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The Strauss-Kahn Defense: Why French Elites Are Rushing to Defend the IMF Chief

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is no longer just a man accused of a crime -- he's a cultural Rorschach test.

Is the IMF official an old-school Gallic gallant and "great seducer," or an even older-school caveman misogynist and sexual satyr? Did French journalists, observing strict privacy laws and loose cultural norms, ignore red flags fluttering around what looks to be his rather turbulent romantic past, or does the Anglo-American press butt in where it shouldn't? Can you be a Socialist man of the people while staying in $3,000 a night hotel suites and tooling around in a Porsche (if so, sign me up)? And by the way, why is he so tan?

The case has even smart guys mixed up. Bernard Henry-Lévy, a leading French philosopher (and himself a ladies' man of some repute), isn't merely content with vouching for Strauss-Kahn's character. He actually tries to poke holes in the accusations of the two women -- a New York chambermaid and a French journalist -- who say Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted them:

I do not know -- but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay -- how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York's grand hotels of sending a "cleaning brigade" of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet....
I hold it against all those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman, this one French, who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.
Why DSK's privacy is a non-issue

Point taken -- Strauss-Kahn wouldn't likely attack two maids. Henry-Lévy's defense would be comical -- a parody of upper-class French male sanctimony -- if it weren't so ugly. How does he know that Tristine Banon, who says Strauss-Kahn jumped on her like a rutting "chimpanzee" during a 2002 interview, is "pretending" to have been attacked? Unless he was there, of course.

Other pundits charge that the case represents an unfair intrusion into Strauss-Kahn's private life. Wrong. As French journalist Isabelle Germain notes, there's no matter of privacy when sex is forced. It's hard to imagine an act more intrusive than rape.

Even weirder than the spectacle around Strauss-Kahn's detention in a Manhattan jail is the spectacle of prominent European figures decrying the manner of his detention. They claim that photographs of him waiting to be arraigned are degrading, even "brutal." Really? I only see a tired, disgruntled-looking guy in an expensive coat. It's not the images that are degrading, in short; it's the crime he's accused of.

Power play
I suspect their objection isn't so much that Strauss-Kahn himself is being dragged through the mud -- it's not like images of, say, young Arab men in handcuffs are exactly alien in the French press -- but rather that the U.S. media coverage may sully his august office as managing director of the IMF. In other words, European elites are discomfited by the sight of power itself being shackled. Says another French journalist:

In France, when someone is powerful, they get away with -- well, I won't say murder, but practically anything else -- and it's turning out, Strauss-Kahn did. I cannot comment on what happened in this specific instance, but there are two perfectly believable women who [tell of] being attacked by him, perhaps not assaulted as brutally as what's being alleged in New York, but it was on the record. People talked about it, and nothing happened to him. They both decided not to press charges because they said, 'I will be disbelieved and this will follow me as somebody that rocks it boat.' It's not done in this country.
We here in the U.S. shouldn't feel too superior, of course. "Perp-walks" are about peddling papers, not symbolically treating the powerful to the same brand of justice as the weak. And it's not like our own elites are above closing ranks to protect their own.

What we can all agree on is that Strauss-Kahn is presumed innocent. He deserves, and will get, his day in court. But so does his accuser, whose rights seem to barely merit a mention among those who protest Strauss-Kahn's supposed mistreatment. She's presumed innocent, too.

Thumbnail from Guillaume Paumier via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.5

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