Early in the summer of 1995, a colleague and I went into South Sudan to report from the side of the South Sudanese guerrilla army, the SPLA. At dinner on the day we arrived, completely out of the blue, one of our minders turned to me and said, “I am so sorry about this Gennifer Flowers.” I had expected to talk about many things in South Sudan, but the woman with whom Bill Clinton had had an affair in the 1980s was certainly not one of them. Not quite sure of how I should answer, I took refuge in sanctimonious platitudes. We take sexual exploitation of women by powerful men very seriously in the United States, I said. Hearing this, the minder only smiled. “With us,” he said, “the fault is always with the woman.”
I have not thought of this incident for years, but the reaction of so many leading French public figures—and not just his allies within the French Socialist Party—to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn brought it all back to me. The International Monetary Fund’s managing director who, until this week, was widely believed to have a good chance of being elected president of France in next year’s elections is facing seven charges, including attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment of a maid at the New York hotel in which he was staying. From Bernard-Henri Lévy to Jean Daniel, the longtime editor of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, to the distinguished human rights lawyer turned politician Robert Badinter, who, as Francois Mitterand’s justice minister secured the abolition of the death penalty, the French elite consensus seems to be that it is Strauss-Kahn himself and not the 32-year-old maid who is the true victim of this drama.
To be sure, Strauss-Kahn might not be guilty. But French intellectuals’ vociferous defense of him, without all the facts of the situation, goes too far. In his weekly column in Le Point, Lévy asked “how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most New York hotels of sending a ‘cleaning brigade’ of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet.” For his part, Daniel wrote in an editorial for his magazine that the fate meted out to DSK, as Strauss-Kahn is generally referred to in the French press, has made him think that, “We [French] and the Americans do not belong to the same civilization,” and demanded to know—shades of my guerrilla friend in South Sudan—why “the supposed victim was treated as worthy and beyond any suspicion?”
As for Badinter, he insisted that by organizing a “perp walk,” in which a handcuffed Strauss-Kahn was paraded before the cameras before being taken to central booking, the New York City Police department had orchestrated DSK’s “mediatic putting to death.” To remember that this was the kind of rhetoric Badinter used in his campaign to abolish the death penalty is to vindicate Marx’s famous observation that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Badinter did not go so far as to claim DSK’s accuser was lying, even if his claims, like those of Lévy, Daniel, and others, that Strauss-Kahn was likely innocent allowed no other conclusion—the only question, really was whether she was lying on her own or was part of a conspiracy. But Badinter did denounce any privileging of the woman’s testimony, even though, by the time he wrote his editorial, it had been leaked that she had picked DSK out of an NYPD lineup. Nonetheless, Badinter persisted in calling for what he called “equality of weapons [between] the accuser and the man presumed to be innocent [sic].”
And where these French master thinkers went, the press swiftly followed. A journalist from one of France’s main radio stations who witnessed Strauss-Kahn’s arraignment reported that, before he had been brought before the judge, there had been a procession of “blacks and Latinos accused of all sorts of petty crimes, above all selling drugs.” The American judicial system was denounced for taking the claims of his alleged victim more seriously than his denials, but the reporter certainly did not accord the same presumption of innocence to the “blacks and Latinos” in question, instead waxing indignant that DSK had not been allowed to jump the queue and been arraigned ahead of this riff-raff. At least, the journalist did not go so far as Bernard-Henri Lévy, who wrote, “I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering [DSK] to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other.”
Personally, I do not think Lévy thinks any more clearly about Libya or Darfur than he does about American justice, but even those more charitably disposed toward his activism may wonder just what is so wrong with treating Strauss-Kahn, a man accused of having committed serious crimes, like, well, a man accused of having committed serious crimes. And why should Strauss-Kahn receive this special exemption from the way all accused criminals are supposed to be treated under American law—that is, when the system works as it was meant to?
The answer boils down to two reasons. The first was that DSK’s friends could not believe he was guilty. Fair enough: After all, they are his friends, even though Lévy’s protest that, while Strauss-Kahn might be “charming and seductive” and “a friend to women” (whatever that may mean), it was absurd to think that he would ever prey on women, seems hard to credit. After all, stories of DSK forcing himself on women are so well-known in France that the comedian Stephane Guyon even had a skit two years ago about Strauss-Kahn coming to a radio station for an interview and a loudspeaker calling on all the women to assemble and go into a safe room where they were to stay until he had left the building.
The claims of friendship are what they are. But those in France who have risen to DSK’s defense have also repeated over and over again how important Strauss-Kahn has been and all the good and important deeds and crucial roles he has played, above all as head of the IMF, where, as Lévy put it, “Europe, not to say the world … is indebted to him for contributing … to avoiding the worst.” But this is either a non-sequitur—a rapist can do lots of good things in other arenas of his life—or it is a claim that, because DSK is a valuable person, he is entitled to special treatment. In my view, of course, this second claim is the subtext of all the storm and fury in Paris over how Strauss-Kahn has been treated. To which one can only say that one hopes French intellectuals enjoy a system that permits them to claim such privileges for their caste. As Talleyrand, a far wiser Frenchman, once observed, “Those who haven’t lived before the Revolution do not know the sweetness of living.”
David Rieff is a contributing editor for The New Republic.