Paris Reacts To Strauss-Kahn: Do French Elites Deserve Different Laws?

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There wasn’t anything particularly French about the enormous attention focused on the New York courtroom hearing Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s successful request for release on bail from Rikers Island imprisonment awaiting trial on charges of attempted rape. But given Strauss-Kahn’s origins and enormous (and now apparently finished) influence in French society and politics, it isn’t surprising much of France followed the May 19 bail proceedings live. However, the palpable urgency and outrage with which many people here longed to see DSK freed from jail—no matter how strict the conditions involved may be—does reflect a deeper reality and difference separating French and American society: the aversion and discomfort many French people still have at seeing members of their elite receiving harsh treatment regularly dished out to mere commoners.

A text like this will likely be accused of resorting to the kind of old, unthinking clichés that reinforce stereotypes, and mask changing realities and attitudes that make typecasting and person or group increasingly inaccurate. Despite that risk, it’s worthwhile at this point to note that a lot of the trans-Atlantic gnashing of teeth over the DSK affair has in part arisen from differing sensibilities over how elites are and should be treated in the U.S. and France. Mega-generalization number one: the French don’t at all mind seeing their rich and powerful forced to answer for dubious actions, or even submitted to humbling public scrutiny in the process. But they typically don’t like seeing the elite treated like normal people subjected to normal rules—much less handled common criminals (even when they’re suspected of common crimes).

Mega-generalization two: Americans, by contrast, have come to view the mobbing of errant public figures as one of the risks of–and prices to be paid for—obtaining fame, fortune, and/or power. The mass clamoring for a disgraced pol or celebrity to get the tar and feathering apparently deserved has become something of a national sport—and practiced with the same zeal (yet inverse emotion) Americans tend to hail public figures they judge positively.

Once it feels it has sufficient evidence a famous suspect is guilty, American public opinion tends to regard the person as no better or worse than the lamented act at issue. It’s a very rapid, perhaps even brutal way application of the defining qualitative “you are what you eat” logic to behavior. By contrast, the French usually don’t allow their changed esteem for the accused to alter their respect for the lofty station or position he or she occupies (and which brought them into public view in the first place). Once you’re part of France’s social or political officer class, it’s rare you’ll ever be busted back down to a private’s rank, or treatment. Or in “you are what you eat” terms, a French VIP may be humiliated by revelations that he or she (and let’s face it: usually “he”) eats like a pig, but that won’t change public respect for of the superior chow involved that the commoner tends to envy. No matter the food involved, the American tends to live by the motto “slurp your soup, go to jail”.

Okay, so like all generalizations, those don’t apply to everyone in either country. Meanwhile, attitudes and ethics are evolving in both countries all the time—especially France, which really doesn’t get enough credit for the many ways it has changed over time. But the French uproar over DSK’s treatment in New York was a reminder there’s some truth to those contrasting characterizations. If it’s said the U.S. is a country where, in the end, money can buy anything, there’s truth to the claim France remains a very class, even caste-conscious society. And responses to seeing someone like DSK be treated by the blindly field-leveling rules of the New York criminal system confirmed that.

Socialist André Vallini warned the U.S. had become a place where powerful people were routinely laid low by clearly false accusations by money- or attention-seeking people—advancing claims, he said, that quickly all apart. Commentator and centrist politician Jean-François Kahn likened the American-detained DSK to French anti-Semitism victim Albert Dreyfus. Kahn then revealed his own class-consciousness (and sexism) by suggesting Strauss-Kahn probably did nothing more than “feeling up the servant”. The most flagrant claim that the rules applying to mere mortals should not be enforced on elites came from one of its loudest members, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy expressed his fury at seeing his friend DSK become “a subject of justice like any other”, and mocked the “modestly termed ‘accusatory’” American criminal system in which “anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime.”

The U.S. justice system may well be dysfunctional at times, but BHL’s suggestion that DSK should be protected from accusations from the rabble is a vibrant demonstration the French elitist apartheid attitude at its boldest. Not surprisingly, BHL was also a vocal supporter of Roman Polanksi against what many in France characterized as the viciously puritanical, revenge-addled efforts in the U.S. (and more accurately, California) to return him for the trial Polanski fled three decades earlier. Forget both cases involved alleged sex crimes: the main focus was defending French VIPs from the grubby hands of popular justice, and the media lynching they were said to also be victims of. Accusations be damned: some things just aren’t done.

As noted above, this isn’t to say everyone in France was horrified by DSK being treated as any other suspect in America would; nor that even a majority of people who were shocked at his dire situation think he shouldn’t be held responsible for any criminal acts he may have committed. But as the recent investigations into the political and financial scandal involving high ranking officials (including cabinet members) and billionaire L’Oréal heiress demonstrated, if French public opinion is willing to see its elite held accountable in ways that would have been unheard of even 20 years ago, it wants that to be carried out in a more discreet, respectful way. Questioning, search warrants, and confrontation is fine to get the truth—but let’s not have the arrests, detentions, handcuffs, or perp walks on display in the U.S.

Of course, most of those heavier-handed, summary procedures do occur in France, of course—only they involve hundreds of thousands commoners each year that no one has ever heard of, and whose social station wouldn’t create much protest if anyone did hear about them. Conversely, don’t look for BHL to start railing about the unfair treatment of an accused sex offender quietly cooling his heels and maintaining his innocence in some far-flung U.S. prison beyond the camera lights in Manhattan any time soon, either.