Political life in France stopped at dawn on Sunday morning. The news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on board a Paris-bound Air France flight by the NYPD after he allegedly attempted to rape a chambermaid in a hotel in midtown Manhattan came as a heart-stopping shock for a whole nation. I saw many jaws drop upon hearing the news. The first reaction was one of utter disbelief: impossible, said many people; this is a setup. So did a few French MPs, from across the political spectrum. He must have fallen into a honey trap, they said in substance. And how stupid of him, many added.
At first, it was difficult indeed to feel anything but bewilderment. The man was, literally, on top of the world. One of the most powerful men in the world, DSK, as he’s known in France and Washington, was on his way to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the NYPD hustled him away to a Harlem police station. DSK's work at the head of the IMF had restored the world institution’s standing, and his management of the world economic crisis, and of Greece, Ireland and Portugal’s bailouts, had awed many governments around the world. Besides, this man was about to declare his candidacy for the 2012 French presidential elections; poll after poll had placed him far ahead of every other contender, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy included. DSK was considered highly likely to become France’s next president, and many French people were relying on him to put a close to Sarkozy’s five disastrous years in power. And here he was suddenly, le roi nu, relegated to playing a louche character in a bad US TV cop series. One had to be kidding, right?
Now, to the question many British and American observers ask: why is it such a surprise for the French to hear that the irrepressible womanizer DSK is charged with sexual assault? Womanizing is no crime, and in France men are culturally allowed to court women in ways that would be considered sexual harassment in the United States. French women learn from an early age to dismiss such behavior as childish, but not as criminal. DSK has never tried to conceal his reputation as a séducteur, and he is respected for his intelligence and charm. However, being a séducteur and being a rapist is worlds apart, and the charge of attempted rape is as grave in France as anywhere else. French, British and Americans don’t differ on this.
Since he was arrested by the New York Police, another case has emerged in Paris against DSK. The 31-year-old writer Tristane Banon has come forward to reveal that nine years ago she was the subject of sexual assault by DSK. Many French observers asked why she was coming out with this now, but a few French journalists have started asking soul-searching questions: “Why haven’t we looked more into his private life?” asked editorialist Pierre Haski. We didn’t because in France, what would most likely be called insistent male courting is tolerated. This attitude, combined with a general reverence for politics and those who make it, explains why DSK’s relationship with women was considered an entirely private matter not worthy of public scrutiny.
French journalists may have started their mea culpa, but French citizens are reeling over the images of a handcuffed Strauss-Kahn. Political commentators on TV looked as haggard and ashen-face as DSK standing in front of Judge Melissa Jackson. Veteran commentator Olivier Mazerolle on the news channel BMF TV was at a loss for words, in a state of total shock. To tell you the truth, so were we all in front of our television.
The case saw another dramatic development when Judge Jackson refused to release DSK on bail, even though his defense team suggested he pay $1 million bail and had accepted the condition that he wear an electronic bracelet. Was DSK treated like any other citizen, people here asked? If he were, he’d be released on bail, wouldn’t he? The whole nation was too stunned to actually try to understand. It had been a momentous thirty-six hours, and we all needed rest.
Especially the French Socialist Party. It now has a few weeks to dissociate itself from a man who, even if proven innocent in six months, is now politically dead. However, until proven guilty, the man remains innocent. How can one both support and dissociate oneself from such man? The Socialists are in an impossible situation. Could second fiddle François Hollande step in with as much authority, competence and intelligence as DSK? He will have to. Hollande now has an invigorated Nicolas Sarkozy and an increasingly popular Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, to fight. At least, Hollande can claim one crucial asset: he is not a séducteur.