Video: French society soul-searching over Strauss-Kahn case

  1. Transcript of: French society soul-searching over Strauss-Kahn case

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And now to the scandal involving some serious sex crime charges against the head of the International Monetary Fund , Dominique Strauss Kahn . His lawyers here in New York are going to court tomorrow to try and persuade a judge he should be allowed to bail out of Rikers Island jail here in New York . Meanwhile in France , where bad behavior by men is often de rigueur and public figures get to have private lives, there's some rethinking going on. Michelle Kosinski live tonight for us in Paris . Michelle , good evening.

    MICHELLE KOSINSKI reporting: Hi, Brian. That initial angry shock here over Strauss Kahn 's arrest, the talk of conspiracy theories have really now evolved into a much closer look at his behavior over the last few years. And in this city where flirtation is almost a part of daily life, a closer look at French society itself. The uproar started with the sight of those handcuffs, that walk for the cameras.

    Ms. NICOLE BASHERON: The reaction is shock to everything.

    KOSINSKI: And growing. A young journalist, who in the past claimed Dominique Strauss Kahn had sexually attacked her, now regrets not pressing charges nine years ago and is considering doing so. There's a closer look at a one-night affair he had three years ago with a IMF subordinate who described him as having coerced her and having a problem. Another journalist who says Strauss Kahn repeatedly, aggressively offered her interviews in exchange for sex, which she declined. A politician who says Strauss Kahn groped her, and still more, according to writer and historian Nicole Basheron .

    Ms. BASHERON: A lot of women are talking to each other, you know, in the political circle, in the media circle, saying they were a witness of the -- they had encounters with him where they could sense it -- he was an aggressive womanizer.

    KOSINSKI: Not necessarily criminal, but many here in France say such things are often simply brushed aside.

    Unidentified Woman: The debate is good for the women, it's good for them to speak about sexual harassment.

    KOSINSKI: A popular online journalist is even asking why didn't the press talk about Strauss Kahn 's private life , that this ought to be a lesson for no longer ignoring certain characteristics.

    Ms. BASHERON: The French are opening a conversation about the limit between what is private and public, what is, you know, maybe aggressive courtship, womanizing, and criminal conduct. Where is the border there?

    KOSINSKI: And what that border should be between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. One paper said Strauss Kahn 's only problem was the way he treated women. And now the French are asking that question that we in the US seem to have had to ask many times recently, for such an intelligent, successful man, the front-runner to be the next French president , if this happened the way his accuser says it did, how could he have risked everything like this? Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Michelle Kosinski in Paris for us tonight. Michelle , thanks.

updated 5/18/2011 6:44:26 PM ET 2011-05-18T22:44:26

Why is it that we cannot read any discussion of a political sex scandal, or a sex scandal involving a politician, without pseudo-sophisticated comments about the supposedly different morals of Americans and Europeans? And why is it that this goes double if the politician is French, or if the reactions being quoted are from Gallic sources? And when did this annoying journalistic habit become so prevalent? It must have sprung up quite recently, or at least since the time when Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy were presidents of their respective countries. The first man was a strict and fastidious Puritan who never gave his wife Yvonne a moment's cause for complaint, while the second was a sensational debauchee who went as far as importing a Mafia gun-moll into the White House sleeping quarters. Yet the American culture, which regards Kennedy as a virtual Galahad, is the supposedly shockable one, while in France — ah, la France — a much more broad-minded and adult attitude prevails.

Surely France and its partisans are not saying that the attempted rape of a chambermaid would not rearrange so much as an eyebrow in the supposedly refined salons of Paris? (After all, the endlessly cited François Mitterrand may have had a daughter out of wedlock, but he took good care to keep it a secret for as long as he could.) The problem arises from mentioning the two types of sexual behavior in the same breath. A related problem derives from the belief that Americans will not tolerate marital infidelity from their politicians.

Take two recent episodes on this side of the Atlantic: the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the forced resignation of Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank. To hear Clinton's defenders talk at the time, you would have imagined that he was impeached for receiving oral sex in the Oval Office (an endless source of pretended amusement and bewilderment on the part of the French faction), while to hear the detractors of Wolfowitz you would have had to believe that he arranged special treatment for a bank employee with whom he was conducting an affair.

In fact, Clinton's problem arose from the fact that he was exploiting a junior employee and lying about it under oath in the course of a lawsuit. That lawsuit in turn arose from an episode in which he had made use of his political office to "hit on" young women in his employ. Not content with forcing his whole Cabinet to join in the deception, Clinton used his own staff to suggest that Monica Lewinsky was "stalking" him, an accusation that was highly defamatory and damaging and might well have been believed if she had not been in possession of proof. This extremely sordid behavior led to the surfacing of many earlier allegations. These included charges of coerced sex, amounting to rape, from more than one believable witness. (The story of that revolting conduct is told in my book No One Left To Lie To.) But a majority of the country made light of the entire business, regarding it as a "peccadillo" or private matter. Two of Clinton's hastily recruited spiritual advisors, Jesse Jackson and Billy Graham, even defended the exercise of his special needs as an alpha male, overlooking the crucial fact that his entire defense consisted of denying having done so. Jesse Jackson has gone on to admit the fathering of an out-of-wedlock child, without any noticeable effect on the rate of his pious public appearances. So it seems that the American public is by no mean as censorious either as it believes itself to be or as others believe it to be.

Shaha Riza had been a senior employee of the World Bank before Paul Wolfowitz was appointed, and their long-term and stable relationship was no secret. The decision to find her another post was made in order to avoid even the faintest appearance of any conflict of interest. There was not the scintilla of a suggestion of any sexual harassment or exploitation. But a political vendetta, in which many high-minded European figures took an extremely active part, made it impossible for him to continue in his post. Contrast this with the letter sent to the investigators appointed by the IMF to look into the "affair" between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Piroska Nagy, a female employee who had been subjected to unwanted attentions but had finally succumbed to them. Contesting the finding that their relationship met the proper definition of "consensual," she described Strauss-Kahn as "a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command." (Her delicate phrasing is somewhat outdone by that of Tristane Banon, a young reporter who claims to have suffered an earlier attempted rape at his hands, in the course of which he behaved like "a rutting chimpanzee.") The IMF nonetheless decided that a formal apology would meet the case of Nagy and that no abuse of power had occurred. Exactly who, here, has been demonstrating astonishing naivete in matters sexual?

The belated breakup of the Schwarzenegger-Shriver marriage and the hard time being given to Newt Gingrich by the "social conservatives" may seem to reaffirm the idea that broken marriage vows and a political career are not easily compatible in America. But in Paris, it is being openly said that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of some kind of setup. Much hypocrisy is, of course, involved in both reactions. But of the two, the display of the Gallic "shocked—shocked" reflex is by far the least "adult."

Christopher Hitchens' Kindle Single, The Enemy, on the demise of Osama Bin Laden, has just been published.

© 2013

Timeline: Dominique Strauss-Kahn


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