No one has exactly covered themselves in glory during the arrest and aborted prosecution of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but it's been particularly bad for some.
It appears increasingly unlikely that former IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn will ever face jail for the alleged attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid in New York on May 14. Although there's still significant material evidence implicating Strauss-Kahn in a sexual act of some nature -- the prosecution's case fell apart due to doubts over the victim's credibility -- and a second rape charge in France is now pending, his supporters back home are already crowing that the former IMF chief himself is the one who has been slighted and abused.
This could, unfortunately, bring to an end a rare moment of the examination of gender relations in France, vindicating those in the media who saw the trial as a set up or an overreaction by a "puritan America," uncomfortable with the French public's laissez-faire attitude toward the peccadilloes of its politicians -- never mind that philandering and attempted assault are hardly the same thing. Left out will be a discussion of how someone who has repeatedly been accused of abusing his position for sex and presided over a culture of rampant harassment in the IMF could be a serious contender for the French presidency.
While misleading authorities in a criminal investigation is never justifiable, it's also not difficult to understand why someone in the position of Strauss-Kahn's accuser might not be entirely forthcoming about her background. As Yale University West Africa scholar Mike McGovern writes, "asylum claimants are often asked to perform an impossible task. They must prove they have been subject to the most crushing forms of oppression and violence ... while demonstrating their potential to become hard-working and well-adjusted citizens." She's surely not the first person to fudge things here or there on a visa application.
But the plaintiff at the center of this case also apparently misled authorities on a number of matters, including conversations with an accused drug dealer in the aftermath of the alleged rape and the fact that she was paying hundreds of dollars a month in charges on phones she claims she never knew existed. There were also inconsistencies between her statement to the police and her asylum application on whether she had been the victim of a previous rape or suffered genital mutilation in her home country, Guinea.
While the circumstances surrounding this case are certainly unusual, people who are fleeing violence, war, and repression in their home countries are understandably reluctant to be too forthcoming with authorities. The harsh lesson of this case, right or wrong, is likely to be that coming forward in the United States when you're the victim of a crime or abuse -- and an immigrant -- means opening up your past to scrutiny and putting your legal status at risk. That will make some of America's most vulnerable people even more vulnerable.
The higher they are, the harder they fall. The populist schadenfreude at a powerful man forced to do the "perp walk" is always an easy sell for the media. In the case of Strauss-Kahn, the metaphorical baggage of being the head of a Western-dominated organization that is often accused of exploiting Third World countries being charged with raping an African immigrant (As the Daily Show's Jon Stewart put it, "It's like he's posing for his own editorial cartoon!") made it irresistible. New York's tabloids, always in the mood for a bit of France-bashing, were quick to pounce: "Frog Legs It," screamed an article detailing DSK's attempt to flee the country -- just one of many memorable New York Post headlines. Even the more restrained New York Times peppered its coverage with details about the "caviar leftist," with his $3,000-a-night hotel room and expensive Porsche -- though it was unclear what any of this had to do with his predilection for sexual assault. Newspapers and magazines (including this one, to be fair) were quick to opine on the deeper meaning of Strauss-Kahn's alleged behavior and what it said about French society and international organizations, though he had never been convicted of any crime.
The treatment of Strauss-Kahn's accuser was similarly unfair. While the French media refused to show photos of DSK's New York perp walk, several news outlets there showed no such reservations about publishing the name of his accuser. (In the United States and many other countries, newspapers do not publish the names of plaintiffs in sexual assault trials.) The chambermaid is now suing the New York Post for libel over a thinly sourced front-page story labeling her a "hooker."
In the end, the scandal has provided a much-needed moment to reflect on how high-profile criminal trials should be covered. If a plaintiff can have character flaws or even a criminal record and still be a legitimate victim, surely a defendant can be rich, sleazy, and powerful and still be unfairly accused.
Between French President Nicolas Sarkozy's well-documented yankophilia and the less confrontational style of Barack Obama, U.S.-French relations are generally much improved since the bad old days of Bush-Chirac and the Iraq war. But if the United States and Britain are two countries separated by a common language, the United States and France sometimes seem like a couple sleeping in separate bedrooms. Sometimes the cultural gap is pretty harmless, such as France's blasé attitude toward the Monica Lewinsky scandal or America's fascination with Sarkozy's very public courtship of Carla Bruni. But sometimes, as in French officials' outrage over the ongoing U.S. efforts to extradite French-Polish film director Roman Polanski to face trial for rape, the consequences are somewhat more serious.
The Strauss-Kahn scandal has brought back the familiar French refrain about America's out-of-control political correctness. Strauss-Kahn's friend and outspoken defender, the camera-friendly philosopher king Bernard-Henri Lévy, took the attack of the U.S. justice system a step further -- comparing the scandal to France's Dreyfus Affair, except that in this case, an innocent man was being assumed guilty, "not from his race, but from his class."
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera fired back, writing that Lévy "prefers to live in a country where the elites are rarely held to account, where crimes against women are routinely excused with a wink and a nod and where people without money or status are treated like the nonentities that the French moneyed class believe they are."
Lévy's depiction of the United States as some kind of puritan, Maoist dystopia is clearly absurd on its face. (American Vertigo, indeed.) But so is the notion that France is a racist oligarchy where women are routinely treated as sex objects by decadent male elites. Though it is sure is interesting to watch the old transatlantic stereotypes shaken up a bit.
In the short term, it seems that (assuming all charges against him are dropped, of course), Strauss-Kahn might have a chance at a successful return to French politics. Before his arrest, he was considered almost a shoo-in for the Socialist Party's presidential nomination and even now, 49 percent of French voters and 60 percent of Socialist supporters say they want him back on the scene. The party hasn't ruled out the possibility that he could still be its candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
That being said, it's hard not to conclude that even if he walks away scot-free, Strauss-Kahn's political career has been irreparably damaged. Court proceedings, including attempted rape allegations from journalist Tristane Banon and a possible civil suit by the New York accuser, could continue to dog him for months -- not really the sort of thing the Socialist Party wants dominating the headlines during a presidential campaign season in which Sarkozy appears more vulnerable than ever.
It's certainly possible that a rehabilitated Strauss-Kahn could continue to play a significant behind-the-scenes role in French politics, but his chances at the Élysées palace seem a lot more distant than they did two months ago. And don't put your money on him seeking treatment for his philandering ways, à la Anthony Weiner. French voters wondering what it would be like to have a president better known abroad for his sexual antics than his politics need only look east to Italy.
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images; JESSICA RINALDI/AFP/Getty Images; JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images; DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images