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The Dominique Strauss-Kahn Shipwreck

What will happen after American justice and French conspiracy theories collide?

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case is headed toward a dismally predictable shipwreck, and I wonder what anyone is planning to do about this. The punctilious fair-mindedness of the trial may well turn out to be obvious to everyone who grants the possibility of such thing. The world nonetheless contains entire populations whose assumptions about American justice, despite years of Law & Order, tend to exclude the possibility, and we ought to ask ourselves how those people, the skeptics, are likely to respond to the coming series of events.

Those people, the skeptics, are going to listen to Strauss-Kahn parry his prosecutors, and they are going to discover that Strauss-Kahn is eloquent. They will discover that his lawyers command abilities of their own, which will turn out to be no less devastating to the prosecution than were, say, O.J. Simpson’s lawyers. The skeptical populations will cock an ear to Strauss-Kahn’s champions in the French press. The champions will turn out to be some of the most talented writers alive.

The talented writers will argue that American justice is brutal and peremptory (and, to be sure, this argument has already influenced the trial, and the French journalist who has accused Strauss-Kahn of attacking her in 2002 has announced, through her lawyer, that she will not testify in the New York trial because “the presumption of innocence does not exist in the United States”). The writers will argue that American ideas about sex are too primitive to be taken seriously (and, to be sure, the American press is already full of long-winded parallels between actual violence, or what is said to be, at the Sofitel Hotel, and the former governor of California’s history of deceiving his wife).

The skeptical populations will take note of the New York tabloids and their headlines, which may well be intended semi-humorously by the editors; but one man’s witticism is another man’s exercise in moronic xenophobia. And the skeptical populations will conclude that, in the Strauss-Kahn case, the victim and hero is Strauss-Kahn himself—the defiant victim of the American lynch mentality, of America’s sexual primitivism, and of the gutter press. This will lead to a political thought.

It is no small thing to seize the most electable person from one of America’s principal rivals around the world (as France sometimes likes to present itself) and lock him up. To arrest the dictator of Panama and throw him in a Florida jail, to scoop up Saddam Hussein’s pistol and award it to George W. Bush as a kind of shrunken-head cannibal trophy, to bomb places where Muammar Qaddafi is thought to be and kill his son and grandchildren—that is one thing. But what if there is a pattern? The sovereignty of Pakistan… And if France is thought to have fallen within the pattern?

The French left has been exiled from the presidential Elysée Palace since 1995, which suggests that, in a democracy whose bona fides, like those of any democracy, depend on political rotation, the time has come for Nicolas Sarkozy to lose. And he did seem headed for defeat, especially if Strauss-Kahn were the Socialist candidate. Here is something to consider.

In America, not even the historians remember that French anti-Americanism got started in the 1830s as a result of a decision by the Andrew Jackson administration to insist on getting reimbursed by the French for the many American ships that France had seized during the time of Napoleon. The Jackson administration was entirely justified, but not in the eyes of the French, and the resentments lingered long enough to become a cultural tradition. Even Lamartine, the poet-politician, who was pro-American, turned anti-American on this issue. So now, America will lock up the Socialist candidate, and the Socialists may go down to defeat in 2012, and, regardless of the American justification, how would you yourself respond, if you were an ordinary Socialist voter and had spent the last 17 years stewing over the triumphs of the right? And now that I have uttered the word “Socialist,” I wonder how the Greeks are going to respond if, in the post-DSK era, the International Monetary Fund, no longer led by a kindly Socialist, ends up taking a harder line on the Greek economy? And the Portuguese?

I don’t mean to suggest that, in France or Greece or anywhere else, no one is capable of comprehending that even barbarous America has laws, and chamber maids, rights; and not everyone is eager to rally behind the French political elite. Still, it is worth recalling the success of September 11 conspiracy theories in France. A preposterous credulity about the American willingness to murder thousands of Americans proved to be amazingly widespread, for a while. What will be so hard to imagine, then, about a far more modest conspiracy directed against a single individual, who will not even be put to death, but, if convicted, will merely be incarcerated, either for a long time (indicating the depth of American cruelty) or a short time (indicating a plot within the plot)? If I may propose a conspiratorial speculation of my own, I wonder how many publishers all over the world, the desperate upstart hopefuls, are already searching for conspiracy-theorists to produce their journalistic tomes on the American arrest and trial of Europe’s most powerful Socialist by the henchmen of a sinister American cop named Raymond Kelly, chief of the New York Police Department and agent of capitalism.

And if the man turns out to be innocent? The damage, in that case, will end up greater yet, though maybe not so long-lasting, as when the U.S. Air Force bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. (We apologized.) But assuming the general accuracy of what has already been reported, Strauss-Kahn’s own ardor for defending himself will only succeed in compounding the original crime with a political crime. I suppose there is no point in asking him to interrogate his conscience, any more than there is in asking the editors of the New York tabloids to rethink their headlines. Maybe there might be a point in asking Strauss-Kahn’s champions in the French press and among the politicians to reflect on what they themselves are doing. The more he is defended, the thicker and chillier will be the trans-Atlantic fogs, in the future. Dear champions of DSK, réfléchissez!* But no one is going to reflect. Anyway, a bit more caution on the part of his loyalists would scarcely help, at this point. The ocean-liner of American justice and the ice floes of French conspiracy theories are already bobbing in one another’s direction, and nothing is to be done about it, and, oh dear, has anyone figured out what to do next, post-collision?

Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic and the author of The Flight of the Intellectuals and Power and the Idealists.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.

*This was corrected from an earlier version, which incorrectly stated the French word as “réflichissez-vouz.”