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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

French morals, American justice Add to ...

The French elites are in an advanced state of shock about the downfall of one of their own, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man who was widely expected to be president. But the French elites are not like you and me. Instead of asking whether such a powerful, brilliant and successful man could be so coarse, reckless and stupid, they're outraged about the perp walk. How dare the Americans humiliate him so? Pictures of the great man in cuffs are indicative of "a brutality, a violence, of an incredible cruelty," declared Elisabeth Guigou, a former French justice minister. "I'm happy that we don't have the same judiciary system."

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Me too. The American system is infinitely more fair. In France, it's unimaginable that an immigrant hotel maid of no status could lodge an assault complaint against an ultra-alpha male and be taken seriously. It's inconceivable that the French police would pull that man off a plane moments before it departed or pack him off to a dingy jail cell like a common criminal. Good for them. If DSK had made it out of the country, it's uncertain they'd have been able to extradite him.

Of course, it's up to the American justice system to prove Mr. Strauss-Kahn's guilt or innocence, a job at which it is generally quite good. According to press reports, his lawyers won't deny there was a sexual encounter in that $3,000 hotel room. Instead, they'll argue that it was consensual.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn's sexual history was no secret among the French ruling class. But they didn't care, and the media studiously ignored it. It would have been considered in grotesque bad taste (and possibly illegal) to bring these matters up. Besides, a certain amount of libertinage has always been admired among the political class, as a sign of vigour.

The French have long despised the Americans as unsophisticated prudes in matters sexual. In their view, the prosecution of Bill Clinton for dallying with an intern in the Oval Office was a crime. They vigorously defended the creepy filmmaker Roman Polanski, who sodomized an adolescent girl. How dare those lowbrows persecute a great artist? As every intellectual in France entertained wild conspiracy theories about the right-wing plot to bring down DSK, it was left to far-right politician Marine Le Pen to speak the truth. DSK, she pointed out, had long been a menace, and now he is "completely discredited."

As everybody knows, powerful men are frequently afflicted with satyriasis - a near-uncontrollable inability to keep their pants zipped. So long as they don't pay a price, they just keep unzipping. These men are frequently oblivious to the effects of their behaviour. They truly feel they are entitled. And they're usually enabled by those around them. René Lévesque's sexual behaviour bordered on the predatory, but he was popular with journalists, so they ignored it. Mr. Clinton would jump on anything that moved. Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a love child with the household help and, astonishingly, managed to keep it secret for 14 years. At least that relationship was presumably consensual.

The good news is that in Anglo-Saxon culture, this character flaw has become a serious liability for any man in public life. On this side of the Atlantic, it's unlikely that DSK's behaviour would have been tolerated by any major public institution. At the International Monetary Fund, by contrast, he kept his job even after a subordinate stated that he had pressured her into an affair. "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't," wrote Piroska Nagy, an attractive Hungarian economist, in a letter to investigators. She wrote that her boss was "a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command."

With his conspicuous wealth, his stupendous sense of entitlement, and his libertine tastes, DSK has more than a casual resemblance to the French aristocracy that the populace eventually dispatched to the guillotine. The bizarre reaction of the European socialist class suggests that they too are out of touch. On the whole, I prefer North America, where we expect the values of our rulers to more or less reflect our own. And when they don't, we're appalled.

 

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