Thursday, 19 May 2011

US focus on French sex attitudes echoes Lewinsky saga

Something is very wrong with France, if we are to believe the Anglophone media commentary this week. The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund and contender for the French presidency, has provoked some soul-searching in France about whether the media was right to have kept quiet about his history of unwanted sexual advances toward women. This soul-searching has been reported on with fascination by the American and British media. But for many in France, the Anglo-Saxon attention to their national trauma is bordering on smugness.

Back in the late 1990's, the French were quite vocal in their confusion and disgust with the impeachment proceedings against US President Bill Clinton. France has long had an expectation that politician's private lives are just that – private – and should have no relevance to their office. 'What kind of a society would impeach their president because he had an affair?' they asked. In fact the period during the Monica Lewinsky saga was probably the only one in which the French openly talked about their history of philandering presidents – from Mitterand to Chirac – if only to demonstrate how different their society was to America. If their politicians were oversexed "s├ęducteurs" it was none of their business. Indeed, sometimes it was celebrated as a good thing, a sign of a healthy libido.

But what goes around comes around, and it seems that now it’s the Americans' turn to look derisively across the Atlantic, shake their heads and say, 'if only they were more like us.'

Over the past few days the American and British press have spilled gallons of ink postulating over whether the French tolerance for sexual impropriety from their male politicians allowed a potential sexual predator to nearly become president of the country. 'What kind of a society would consider a man who is notorious for his unwanted sexual advances on women to be eligible for the presidency?' they are asking. The French complained that America was too interested in politicians' sex lives, and it made a minor extra-marital sex act into a major issue. The Americans are complaining that the French are not interested enough, and it's resulted in a sexual predator being elevated to the heights of power.

"The French take pride in the fact that their media do not snoop into the private lives or sexual peccadillos of public figures, who are protected by tough privacy laws," said a Reuters article yesterday. "Some even say politicians' womanising is just a sign of a healthy libido. But some journalists are having second thoughts." Of course this rule does not seem to have applied to female politicians. One only needs to look at the French media's treatment of former Justice Minister Rachida Dati to see that.

An editorial yesterday in the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor condemned the French media for having ignored sexual behaviour from their politicians that could have easily interfered with their professional lives. "The separation of the private-and-work spheres is not as tidy as the French may imagine," they wrote. "A boss who exercises power over employees to win sexual favors can poison an office." They detail the 2008 case in which an IMF investigation revealed that DSK had had a "consensual" affair with a subordinate. Although DSK acknowledged the affair the IMF decided not to fire him, even though the woman told investigators that she felt pressured to have the affair with her superior. She said she was "damned if I did and damned if I didn't." In France the scandal was greeted with barely a raised eyebrow. In fact the media seemed to consciously ignore it, and it was never brought up when discussing DSK's presidential aspirations.

America's CBS News detailed reports that Nicolas Sarkozy had warned DSK to control himself in Washington when he left France in 2007 to take the IMF job. "Over there they don't joke about this sort of thing," Sarkozy is reported to have told Strauss-Kahn. "Your life will be passed under a magnifying glass. Avoid taking the lift alone with interns. France cannot permit a scandal." Personally I doubt this conversation ever took place, it seems likely the story was planted by Sarkozy aides to make him look morally superior to the opposition Socialists. But he sure knows how to seduce an American audience by feeding their ideas of moral superiority.

Time Magazine had a long article yesterday that was perhaps the most damning of all. They interviewed French power players who were dismayed that they had, for so long, looked the other way in the face of DSK's womanizing. They spoke with a lawyer who said he had received dozens of complaints about unwanted sexual advances from DSK. They describe how it became a joke in France that women should not be alone in a room with him. And they quote a French feminist as saying a double standard exists in France for male and female politicians, because of the 'cult of the seducteur'. "There's still this enduring attitude that seduction, conquests, affairs and flings by men is somehow O.K., even sort of admirable, while women who complain of sexual aggression are either making it up, or just having buyer's regret," Time quotes her as saying.

"If I try transposing the situation in New York on Sunday to France, I just can't do it," she continues. "Not only because the woman is black and apparently an immigrant. But also because she's a housekeeper. Perhaps even more than her race, her station in society would probably prevent authorities [in France] from taking her accusations against a rich and powerful man seriously. Racism is on the rise here again, but class discrimination has never gone away." This is a pretty devastating critique, and it seems to suggest that DSK had become so accustomed to getting away with being a sexual predator in France that he mistakenly expected to get away with it in America as well. It would be an astonishingly grotesque level of priviledge and power for the political elite in France if this were true, like relations between medieval nobles and their serfs.

So is this just another exercise in that favourite American pastime of French-bashing, or are their substantial problems in French society which the Anglophone media is merely pointing out? The answer is probably both. The French media certainly did have a point when they criticised the bizarre impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton for an extramarital affair that had nothing to do with his performance as president. But for American conservatives, hearing lectures from the French about how bad American society is only made them more convinced that what they were doing was right.

The finger-wagging coverage in the Anglo-Saxon media may be producing the same dig-in-your-heels effect in France now. A poll conducted this week showed that an astonishing 57% of French people believe DSK was set up. That number rises to 70% when only Socialists are polled. Though there has been plenty of soul-searching in the French media about whether ignoring sexual misconduct by politicians has been a mistake, there's been plenty of other reaction condemning this as an Anglo-Saxon persecution. The French public has been aghast that a man only accused of a crime would be trotted out in front of television cameras in handcuffs. There has been French media commentary complaining that the prudish American media has assumed DSK to be guilty merely because he has a history of seduction of women. They say this is a far cry from rape, but American sexual morays have equated the two.

America and France have an uncomfortable relationship with one another, a bit like feuding siblings. I often say the reason Americans and the French don't get along is because they're actually so similar, but just in two opposite extremes. They're perhaps the two most proud and nationalistic countries in the Western world, who both think Democracy and freedom was their personal gift to the earth. And yet ideologically, they could not be more different. And so when one country seems to be going off the rails, they don't enjoy hearing smug commentary from the other. France may indeed have a problem in the way it treats its male political elite, but getting a lecture about it from Americans is unlikely to spur them into dealing with the issue. 

After all, lectures from France certainly didn't help America shed its obsession with the sex lives of politicians after the Lewinksy affair. One only needs to try to avoid the word ' Schwarzenegger' in American newspapers this week to be reminded of that.


Daniel said...

I find it rather absurd that the French media is horrified that a prominent politician is shown on television in handcuffs on his way to face a court hearing, yet they have no problem reporting the name and running long exposes on a potential rape victim.

Daniel said...

Good, balanced article Dave. I think this case/potential trial is going to be a really interesting episode in exposing the stresses of the complex American/French relationship. Perhaps even in the same way that the O.J. Simpson trial highlighted the lingering racial divide within the US.

Erik said...

France was right to criticize America's handling of the Lewinsky affair. The response was completely overblown (no pun intended) and ultimately hypocritical, since the man leading the charge against Clinton, then-Speaker of the House Newt G...ingrich, was cheating on his wife at the time. I think we can agree America's puritanical approach to the world is basically repugnant. But my problem with this post is that it compares apples to oranges and it lets the French off the hook. The Lewinsky scandal involved consensual sex that technically only hurt Mrs. Clinton's feelings and damaged her trust. The DSK scandal involves an alleged sexual assault against a vulnerable immigrant widow. Since DSK's behavior was previously known to border on harassment, and his affairs have never hurt his career, isn't it reasonable for people (yes, even Americans and Brits) to wonder why a potential predator was ignored for so long? The French response, both in newspapers and in polls, suggests the French are at least as delusional as the conservative Americans who wanted to hang Clinton for getting a blowjob. They've already decided it's a plot, and that the Americans cannot possibly dispense proper justice. If Timothy Geithner had been arrested in France for attempted rape of a maid, I think the French media would have a heyday. Given the circumstances, isn't (most) of the media response to DSK justified? And shouldn't France continue with its soul-searching? And isn't this really more serious than Lewinsky?

Erik said...

I guess when it comes to moralizing, I'd rather a country moralize against harassment and rape, than advocate for ignoring such things in the name of privacy. There's simply no excuse for a man to use his authority to get an employee in bed, and no excuse for a nation to declare a man innocent simply because he's French.

Frank said...

The man still protests his innocence. The presumption of innocence is part of US Constitutional practice. It's funny but to hear you guys it's like the man has already been convicted and sentenced. This is perhaps more a reflexion of society's own instant media gratification culture than of any grown-up attitude to sexual assault.

Daniel said...

As for the Lewinsky scandal, while I thought impeachment was an over-reaction, he was having sex with an intern, in the Oval Office. I think a media scolding and perhaps even a congressional censure would have been appropriate, and I voters have a right to know that a candidate for public office had engaged in such reprehensible behavior. The French custom of sweeping it under the rug seems to have fed even more monstrous behavior. I'm not a psychologist, but they say rape is not about sex, it's about power. There's probably some kind of thrill he gets out of the behavior, and if this allegation is true, it looks like he kept continually pushing the limits. If he's guilty, France will have an immigrant hotel maid to thank for finally putting a stop to this monster.

Erik said...

@Frank: Actually, I said "alleged sexual assault" and "potential predator." I'm fully prepared to let justice run its course, especially given my "grown-up attitude to sexual assault." Is it not permissible to have a discussion about who's accused of a crime, as long as it's worded appropriately? Regardless, DSK's previous exploits are already well-known, and they are public record. Even if he is innocent in the current matter, his previous behavior does help explain why so many people have, in fact, decided he's guilty.

Anonymous said...

I fail to understand what THE UNITED STATES has to do with the sense of entitlement a French polititian had, thinking that he could rape a woman.

Erik, I think you finally caught onto the concept once you were done rattling on and on about "moralizing". It isn't about moralizing, it's about the morality of those in whom public trust is placed.

As to how the French chatterati react, it's the same as ever: obfuscate and become passive-aggressive. It's a rare society, France is: one where nothing ever seems to change.