Strauss-Kahn case and French elite

  • 20 May 2011
  • From the section Europe
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Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York court, 19 May 11
Mr Strauss-Kahn won $1m bail but remains under strict supervision

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a story about alleged violence and power. At its centre are two people: a member of the global power elite and an African immigrant.

The parading of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs, haggard and unshaven, is at once a terrible humbling. It is a reminder of what an English Church man once wrote, "be you ever so high, still the law is above you".

Many in France have been outraged by the images. The "perp walk" condemns the innocent, in their view. The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, a friend of Strauss-Kahn, saw it as a man being thrown to the dogs or "delivered to a crowd of photo-hounds".

Jack Lang, a former Socialist minister, saw it as a lynching.

Indeed, under French media law it is not possible to show the accused in this way.

The American view is very different. They see the "perp walk"' as underlining the egalitarian character of their judicial system - although, to be fair, American history has its fair share of cases where the rich and influential have escaped justice.

Landmark case

But one fact is indisputable. The maid in this case, an immigrant from a hard-scrabble housing project, believed that she would be listened to when she made her complaint. In the moment of making her accusation she thought the law was there to protect her. Whatever the truth of the case, the parading of Strauss-Kahn sent a powerful message that even IMF chiefs can end up at Rikers Island.

In Europe much of the comment from ministers and officials has focused on the tragedy for Strauss-Kahn. It took the Spanish Finance Minister, Elena Salgado, to sound a different note. "If I had to show my solidarity and support for someone," she said, "it would be toward the woman who has been assaulted, if that is really the case that she has been."

In the New York Times Maureen Dowd - whilst accepting that Strauss-Kahn remained innocent - saw it almost as an American morality play featuring "a young widow who breaks her back doing menial labor at a Times Square hotel to support her teenage daughter, justify her immigration status and take advantage of the opportunities in America" and on the other side "a crazed, rutting, wrinkly old satyr charging naked out of a bathroom, lunging at her and dragging her around the room, caveman-style".

It too has become a story about the French elite - that circle of politicians, civil servants, business chiefs, journalists who eat with, sleep with and marry each other. It is an elite - as elsewhere in Europe - that protects itself and presumes to hold power.

So we now know that within that circle Strauss-Kahn did not just have the reputation as a "chaud lapin" (randy) or "le grand seducteur". There were darker stories of sexual aggression, but they were shrouded in omerta, in silence.

Despite the rumours, one of the few journalists to refer to them was Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent for Liberation. He wrote on his blog that Mr Strauss-Kahn when it came to women was often "too insistent, he often comes close to harassment". It was a "weakness known by the media, but which nobody mentions. (We are in France.)"

There were other stories that were known about but covered up.

In the French view the public interest stops at the bedroom door. It raises the question of when the voter has a right to know. The atmosphere in which the French elections will be fought will now be very different. There is a tide running strongly in Europe frustrated with those in power and these disclosures will feed into that.

On 6 June Dominique Strauss-Kahn will formally answer the charges against him. A trial may come six months after. His lawyer has already said that the evidence will "not be consistent with a forcible encounter".

It could be, as with many cases involving charges of sexual crime, the case may come to be settled out of court. But the abiding image will be of a member of the European elite who was shown no favours, no deference, when faced with the accusation of a maid.

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