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IMF chief's arrest stirs up anti-Americanism in France

Many French object to the handling of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest on sexual assault charges. But their reaction may be based less on loathing and more on a vast cultural divide.

May 18, 2011|By Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times
  • Many in France were shocked to learn that IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was jailed at Rikers Island.
Many in France were shocked to learn that IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn… (Bebeto Matthews, AP )

Reporting from Paris — It was only a matter of time after the arrest in New York of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges before the America-bashing would begin in France.

On day one, the scandal involving the International Monetary Fund chief and a hotel maid brought shock and stupefaction. Day two, shame and self-pity. By day three, France was looking for a messenger to shoot, someone to blame for the likely political loss of the Socialist Party leader many believed would be the next president.

And so the country launched itself into one of its predictable, periodic spasms of anti-Americanism.

How outrageous that New York police led Strauss-Kahn out of a Police Department facility in handcuffs, resulting in "grotesque" photographs, which nevertheless were widely published in France. What about the presumption of innocence? France wailed about headlines in U.S. tabloids, many of which were reproduced for French readers.

How could a judge throw Strauss-Kahn, DSK no less, into Rikers Island prison, which, readers of Le Figaro newspaper were informed, was noisy, overcrowded, dangerous and filled with prisoners carrying contagious diseases?

"There are numerous very heavy barred doors that make a noise each time they are opened or closed," French lawyer Gerald Lefcourt told the paper. Worse still, he said, "The food is terrible."

The American justice system has been deemed vastly inferior to France's system, which is based on the 1804 Napoleonic Code.

"In America only the wealthy can afford the best lawyers," one radio commentator lamented. Nobody pointed out that Strauss-Kahn is wealthy and can afford the best lawyers.

The reaction by many in France may be based less on loathing and more on a cultural divide wider, deeper and choppier than the Atlantic Ocean separating the two countries.

In sexual matters, the French consider themselves open-minded and liberal and dismiss Americans in particular — and Anglo-Saxons in general — as puritanical and uptight. It follows, therefore, that a French politician's sexual peccadilloes, extramarital affairs and indiscretions are nobody's business but his own.

It helps that much of the French news media, using privacy laws as a fig leaf, buys into this, creating an omerta around politicians and celebrities.

There is a sense in France of one rule for the elite and another for the rest of the population. It was brought into sharp focus Tuesday when French broadcast authorities warned news organizations that images of suspects in handcuffs, not unusual with noncelebrity suspects, contravened the law regarding the "dignity" of detainees.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy told French radio he was outraged by the "grotesque" media lynching of his friend, who he said was being "thrown to the dogs."

"Do you think for a second we would be friends if I thought DSK was a compulsive rapist, a Neanderthal?" he said.

Strauss-Kahn's lawyer entered a not-guilty plea Monday on four felony counts, including sexual abuse and attempted rape, and three misdemeanors. Strauss-Kahn, who was denied bail, did not address the court.

While some viewed Strauss-Kahn and France as victims of the scandal, few spared a thought for the woman he is accused of attacking Saturday.

In truth, it takes very little for France to revert to its default position on the United States. Sniping about the invasion of McDonald's or Starbucks on the Grands Boulevards of Paris, niggling about Americans buying up real estate in the chic parts of town and country (the British are just as bad, but everyone thinks they're American), criticizing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and trashing the cultural omnipresence of Walt Disney Co.

Today, thanks to Strauss-Kahn, the French who choose to criticize the U.S. have a fresh reason to shake their heads and point fingers at the country they love to hate.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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