When I first heard the news of Dominique Strauss Kahn’s arrest in New York I clapped my hand over my mouth in horror. The news was shocking in itself – attempted rape…unlawful imprisonment – but my alarm went deeper than the accusation itself. It felt like a kind of reckoning, a death knell to a certain idea of France. Suddenly, DSK, the Grand Seducteur, the infamous lover of women was revealed as nothing more than a dirty old man unable to control himself. In the process, the very French mythology surrounding sex – particularly of the extra-marital kind – as a private, elegant and decorous game, was exposed as a big lie serving, primarily, as a rampart for the patriarchy. How fitting it was that the nemesis (both of the man and the myth) should be played out in America, the home of the witch-hunt and the cradle of political correctness. And how predictable that so much of the reaction to this story has centred, on both sides of the Atlantic, upon a visceral clash between two world-views.
On the morning after DSK’s arrest, words like “Incredible”, “unbelievable” “Inconceivable” peppered the French headlines. America was universally outraged by the details of the case while in France Twitter was awash with conspiracy theories exonerating the politician. DSK’s socialist colleagues all leapt to his defence. Former prime minister, Laurent Fabius (“in shock”) spared a thought, not for the supposed victim, but for Strauss Kahn’s wife and family. Even his political opponents alluded to a possible set-up by Sarkozy’s entourage to undermine his candidacy for the presidential elections. Former minister for housing, Christine Boutin, in the manner of a true courtesan and guardian of the patriarchy said, “To me the whole business seems highly implausible! We know that he’s rather vigorous, if you know what I mean, but that he should get himself caught like that, seems unbelievable so I hope he’s just fallen into a trap.” The general state of shock in France, then, is not so much that the alleged crime should have taken place but that DSK allowed himself to get caught.
My friend, the journalist and writer, Michele Fitoussi, feels that what’s happening to DSK is being lived out as a national trauma. “We had all heard about him, some made jokes and some knew what he was capable of. For years during our Parisian dinners we’d sit around slyly alluding to DSK’s dubious behaviour with women. We made jokes about the fact that a sexily dressed woman shouldn’t be left alone with him. There were rumours that it went further than the occasional visit to Les Chandelles (Paris’ most elegant swinger’s club). There’s a climate of maximum tolerance towards our male politicians that we’re just waking up from. It feels like a real collective trauma.”
But will this trauma cause a change in behaviour? Not necessarily. French reaction – male and female, public and private – to what is widely seen as the ritual and unnecessary shaming of DSK, betrays the entrenchment of patriarchal values, still being disguised as Epicureanism or savoir vivre. Listen to Bernard Henri Levy’s priceless response on French national radio: “Do you think for one second that we would be friends if I thought that DSK was a compulsive rapist (love the use of the word compulsive here), a Neanderthal man, a guy who behaves towards the women he meets, like a sexual predator? All this is utterly grotesque.”
Significantly, BHL ends the interview by stating that not everyone is the same: “Everybody is not everybody! The President of the IMF, the man who was about to be a candidate for the presidency of the French Republic, handcuffed! It’s obvious that he’s not some commoner (quidam). This American justice is an outrageous hypocrisy (Tartufferie), something I already knew but which today is blindingly obvious to me.”
BHL, with his humanitarian posturing and his patrician lecturing, is the living embodiment of the endless struggle that lies at the heart of French culture, between the myth of Republican equality and the hierarchical values of the Ancien Regime.