Excuse Our French!

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair and New York’s dirty French laundry

It’s all my friends and I talk about these days,” Marc Gross, a Harvard-educated American running one of Paris’ few vegan eateries, Bob’s Juice Bar, tells me. He’s talking, of course, about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief and French presidential would-be accused of sexually assaulting a maid at the Sofitel Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. It sounds familiar in a way talk about sex scandals of the past decade hasn’t, even overshadowing the recent revelation that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a love child, while married to a Kennedy, perhaps the most notoriously sex-scandalized family in American politics.

But D.S.K. has quickly replaced J.F.K. as the top-of-mind libidinous politician with impulse-control problems. Even more significant, he’s replaced the Famous American President accused of sexual relations with an intern.

Yet even there lies a striking contrast: Americans did not come screaming to the defense of President Clinton—a suspected womanizer—when he was accused of infidelity. But the French convention is that Strauss-Kahn—also a suspected womanizer—must be the victim of a conspiracy. So, what is it about the French?

The D.S.K. scandal has reinforced cultural differences between America and France in the most striking instance since that unfortunate period when french fries somehow became freedom fries in more conservative parts of the country. Yet, the charges against Strauss-Kahn—currently awaiting trial under a Lindsay Lohanesque house arrest in Manhattan, on a $1 million bail and a $5 million bond—are fundamentally serious and have highlighted clashes, not just between Americans and the French, but also between New Yorkers and Parisians of both nationalities. It would seem the two cities and their denizens have much in common, as liberal bastions of the mostly progressive. Yet, in recent weeks, the lines between them have become sharper.

In France, many are quick to suggest a conspiracy is afoot. A widely circulated CSA Institute poll found 57 percent of French respondents believing Strauss-Kahn was “the victim of a plot,” the number rising to 70 percent when asked of France’s liberal contingent, even after numerous interviews with women who had been aggressively pursued for sex by the accused in previous encounters.

“I seem to be in tune with what many people feel here,” Gross—a former New Yorker—admits, expounding: “It’s kind of a paranoid sense that there had to have been some sort of setup. Right when he was on this rise, and week after week you are reading about how high he was in the polls, and we’re waiting for his official declaration, and talking about the first Jewish president in a long time, it seemed like the timing was just … incredible.” On the matter of the infamous “perp walk”—a continued point of soreness for French media outlets—he shares what’s emerging in France as a common perspective: “Maybe I’ve been here too long or something,” he said, “but it seemed shocking to me that it was even constitutional. Seems like an abuse of the prosecution’s power. Because we have this principle of innocent until proven guilty, right?”

Infamous French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levi is in tune with the juicer, taking to publications ranging from Der Spiegel to The Daily Beast, defending “my friend” and criticizing an “American judge … delivering [Strauss-Kahn] to the crowd of photo hounds,” then characterizing American coverage as “drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who-knows-what obscure vengeance,” concluding that he’s disturbed by the “accusatory” nature of our judicial system.

Yet, even forgetting his friendship with the accused, Henri-Levi’s France is the same country where tabloid reporters once so aggressively perused Diana of Wales that she died in a car crash as French paparazzi continued to snap away at her. Tina Brown, The Daily Beast’s executive editor, was Diana’s biographer, and the site itself is known for occasionally capitalizing on sensational news events (to put it mildly).

Which is not to say that les Americains are never salacious. Locally, the tabloid dailies are lined with purple prose alluding to the former IMF chief’s hypersexualized nature: “LE PERV,” the New York Daily News used as a header, referring to the “sex-crazed … French big” who “can bid au revoir” to his career after continuing in his “skirt-chasing” ways. The New York Post was far less kind, describing him as a “testosterone-charged … jet-setting moneyman” who is a “sleazeball,” “randy,” “Pepé Le Pew-like” and “un animal.” Even The New York Times characterized the allegations against him as “tawdry.” Most of the American coverage has—however subtle, or not—equivocated the French with their casual attitudes toward sex. At the very least, much of the coverage has erred on the side of a vague presumption of guilt, based on Strauss-Kahn’s notorious past.

But are we really that buttoned up compared to our French counterparts? The chef of New York City’s French seafood mecca Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert, argues differently. Growing up, he saw America as a place with far more casual attitudes than his homeland.

“In France, we see America as a very free, relaxed country about sex,” he said. “Kids in college in America are actually much more wild than the kids in Europe, that’s for sure.”

Ripert took objection with American characterizations of French attitudes, noting the media as far less conspiratorial than Americans are being led to believe. “I don’t think the legitimate French media are promoting this kind of behavior.” Reiterating the need for a fair trial, Ripert noted: “Even if he was set up, the guy didn’t do the right thing,” referring to recent evidence that Strauss-Kahn did in fact have sexual relations with a maid at the Sofitel Hotel. “He did something that was not right. Even if he got set up, he’s not supposed to cheat on his wife. It’s a scandal, obviously, and it reflects poorly on French people and on France.”

French laws are stridently in favor of the accused when it comes to sexual harassment; Americans are encouraged to come forward with anything suspicious, especially when it involves an abuse of power. When asked about policies with his own employees, Gross agreed that sexual harassment in the workplace was likely a more touchy subject in France than it is in America, due conversely to relaxed norms about what’s passable.

Ripert admits of France that “power can be abused, in the workplace” admitting a preference for “the American rules, fair laws. I don’t think anyone who’s being sexually abused would be able to live with that. In the workplace? Someone who’s harassed by his boss or his supervisor? It’s terrible,” pausing, and then: “In any culture, it’s unacceptable.”

Some are flexible on that count. In the soon-to-be-released La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life (Times Books), Elaine Sciolino, the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, notes: “Sexuality always lies at the bottom of the toolbox; in everyday life, in business, and even in politics. For the French, this is part of the frisson of life.” She later writes: “The French still imbue everything they do with a deep affection for sensuality, subtlety, mystery, and play. Even as their traditional influence in the world shrinks, they soldier on … [Seduction] is more than game; it is an essential strategy for France’s survival as a country of influence.”

Sciolino lives in Paris, of course. According to Wikipedia, she was born in Buffalo, N.Y.

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