Early French Reaction To News That DSK Case May Collapse

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Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, June 6, 2011. (Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP Getty Images)

(UPDATED: 11:50 a.m. EDT)

Reaction in France to the bombshell news from U.S. that prosecutors’ case against former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn for attempted rape and sexual assault was nearing collapse has thus far been muted—though that’s certain to change when the nation’s talking heads awake and learn of the late-breaking information out of New York.

Strauss-Kahn appeared in a Lower Manhattan courthouse at 11:30 a.m. where prosecutors released him on his own recognizance. According to TIME’s Nate Rawlings, the judge freed Strauss-Kahn from his house arrest and waived his bail. But the Assistant District Attorney was clear in noting they are not dismissing the case and will ensure his passport is not returned to him, barring him from leaving the country.

However, awaiting response from the pundits, politicians, and average news junkies who will inevitably air analyses of this latest twist in the extremely high-profile affair, here’s a preview of what we’ll be inclined to to hear—or not:

  • Caution, caution, then a bit more caution: Because the May arrest and indictment of Strauss-Kahn provoked claims of his innocence that were as categorical as the opposing condemnation that the notorious sexual predator should have been unmasked years ago, French reactions aired in hindsight Friday are bound to be more measured. Indeed, awaiting the still slumbering talking heads who assumed the role of lead bloviators the first time around, France’s media have thus far played the story about as straight as possible—and with a degree of wait-and-see that was rare in May. “Accusations Against DSK May Fall Apart” headlined le Monde online, an almost literal translation of the New York Times story that le Monde dispassionately details. (Daily rival Libération went the same route, with almost an identical headline.)Similarly, news radio station France Info led with the stunning news early Friday, but was equally carefully in recounting the contents of the original Times piece, and remained strictly conditional about the doubts and consequences it involves. Meanwhile, in deference to the numerous unexpected twists in—and intemperate reactions to— the DSK case already, France Info’s only editorial addition to the dramatic news of prosecutors’ questioning aspects of the victim’s credibility was the sage comment, “what a mess”.
  • Shift targets of suspicion: As the various elements of his dilemma gradually lined up against him, Strauss-Kahn’s French backers found it increasingly difficult to continue flatly refuting the charges against him  as fabrication, a conspiracy, or a French-bashing miscarriage of justice. As a result, his supporters fell back to reminders about presumption of innocence—and attacks of an American justice system that they (and many others in France) found brutal in its humiliating presumption of guilt. It’s that theme we’re likely to see reprised in the early hours of Friday—and explode if American courts decide to dismiss the charges or relax the conditions of DSK’s release during a new hearing expected Friday.

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No matter how the Strauss-Kahn case turns out, its function in bringing the French public into direct contact with the U.S. criminal system will leave many in France viewing it as a kind of Kafka-esque nightmare waiting to happen to just about anyone (meek or powerful) who happens to get caught up in it. If the head of the IMF—and favorite to win the French presidency—could be thrown in the clink and treated like a common criminal (only to be cleared—of sorts—once damage to his life had been done), who doesn’t risk being treated just as bad once on American soil? Given the rather dim views of American justice that have materialized in France over the past few months, it’s likely commentators will now again be putting the U.S. criminal process itself on trial in the upcoming hours and days, and apparently on far firmer moral and legal footing than before. “If the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn are dropped, it means he was thrown to the wolves by the functioning of a (legal) system after all,” former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin said Friday on France 2 TV. “That leads me to believe that, in the end, we’re not so bad off with our system in which an independent investigating magistrate leads a (neutral) inquiry to establish proof of guilt and innocence.”

  •  French Men Still Aren’t Off the Hook: even if the sexual encounter between Strauss-Kahn and his accuser is found to be consensual—or, more accurately, aspects of her life deemed too prejudicial for the prosecution to pursue charges of sexual assault—there won’t be a rush to paper over revelations about DSK’s past behavior, claw back the collective avowal that French society has a lot of work to do in how men treat women—or mute calls to improve the way French law treats women mistreated by men. If the recent accusations against DSK seemed to stick, it was largely because many people had been aware of his past behavior, and decided looked the other way—as they’ve done with countless other sexually abusive, forceful, or just pushy French males.

Though it’s still nascent, a collective awakening has taken place that this country has a significant problem between the sexes–and it’s one France can no longer avoid working on. In fact, it’s already started doing so. Women are stepping up to denounce cases of sexual abuse they’ve been victims of, while others—including women politicians—have complained about the atmosphere of sexual pressure the frequently encounter. This movement has even gotten concrete:  former junior government minister was forced to resign under accusations of sexual assault, and just last week saw his legislative peers strip him of parliamentary immunity to prosecution he might have otherwise enjoy in the case.

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Even if it turns out DSK wasn’t guilty as charged in the New York case–or if it’s dropped due to other considerations–few here will be inclined to dismiss the allegations of victims closer to home as they once were. Meanwhile, if prosecutors are forced to drop their case, look to French feminists to remind people the reasons for why that happened: not because it was clear the woman in the case lied about the sexual aggression she accuses Strauss-Kahn of; but because other, separate aspects of her life will undermine her credibility as a victim in the eyes of U.S. courts. In fact, if DSK’s case is dropped for reasons that have little to do with the actual claims of attempted rape, it may give French women another argument for why it is people should be thinking about claims of victims first, and other questions about whether she deserved thuggish treatment or not farther down the line.

  • He’s not coming back…: should the case against Strauss-Kahn implode and he be allowed to return home, he’d be better off trying to seek monetary and moral pay-back from New York prosecutors who he’ll doubtless feel ruined his life rather than trying to quickly restore his career. That just isn’t going to happen any time soon; things have already moved on in the wake of his downfall, merited or not. His French compatriot Christine Lagarde was appointed his IMF successor Wednesday, and the leader of his French Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, entered the primary to become candidate for France’s 2012 presidential election on Tuesday. Despite his former, poll-anointed status as the man likely to trounce incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 race, Strauss-Kahn’s New York travails and two-month agony have changed all that. Time has passed, people have reacted, and consequences are already evident and irreversible.

If he’s cleared of the New York charges, revelations that arose about DSK’s past activity makes his come-back—as presidential hopeful, anyway—out of the question. He would, without doubt, enjoy the status of victim of ruthless New York prosecutors, but too much has already been said about his private life for many voters, his political foes, or even all his Socialist rivals to ignore. Worse still, were DSK to try and force his way back onto the presidential rails by entering the Socialist primary, he’d probably only succeed in further compromising a party already struggling to see the ambitions of nearly a score of hopefuls creating divisions too deep to overcome in a reunited campaign for the 2012 general election. Instead, Strauss-Kahn would be far better off trying to make peace with and offer apologies to the French public for things that have happened before, seek to use the respect many French voters still have for him as a political leader and economist, and use those merits that previously made him the favorite to win the Elysée to help the eventual Socialist candidate’s efforts to do that in his place.

…Probably: If most observers agree it’s very unlikely—to say the least—that DSK could attempt a quick political come back, there will be those as extreme in predicting his rehabilitation as the were in arguing his innocence (he said, glancing at his watch and counting the seconds until Bernard-Henri Lévy issues his next forehead-slapping take on the case). Certainly, changed attitudes in France will no longer allow people (men) who dismissed the sexual allegations against DSK as “feeling up the maid”, or insignificant because “no one died”. Yet there are people out there who never stopped claiming the entire affair was an error at best, or the result of a vast international conspiracy at worse (culprits ranging from Sarkozy to American financiers who fear an internationally respected President Strauss-Kahn might succeed in imposing several regulation on French markets that would inspire American leaders to follow suit). And those same backers will without doubt feel a freed DSK can simply take off where he left off.

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The amuse-gueule of such commentary came early Friday from Socialist legislator and unshakable DSK ally Jean-Marie Le Guen. Le Guen told France Info he felt “great joy”, and vindication over “the way people presumed his guilt…and dragged him through the mud”. “Today, perhaps (those people) see things a little differently….All those who speculated on his political disappearance will have to deal with a man free to move, who can look the French people in the eye, and whose words are important for the situation this country finds itself in.”

Similarly, Michèle Sabban—a Paris municipal politician who has long claimed Strauss-Kahn was victim of a conspiracy—said if the U.S. case is dropped against DSK, she’d motion the Socialist Party to halt its just-opened primaries, and give the fallen champion time to pick himself up, dust himself off, and prepare to defend his title as favorite. That said, Sabban is also the same official who was reportedly emailed by embarrassed Socialist leaders just weeks ago to pipe down with the conspiracy claims, which they felt made the entire party look lame.

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Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, June 6, 2011. (Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP Getty Images)