June 01, 2011

Strauss-Kahn case shows gulf between US and French attitudes


Strauss-Kahn was arrested on May 14 in New York
The scandal that embroiled IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has shocked France in more ways than one. While the allegations themselves were a revelation, the Frenchman's treatment by US media left some observers stunned.

The sex allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn really did strike at the heart of French culture.

"The Strauss-Kahn affair has been like an earthquake for the euro, the International Monetary Fund and for the left," said a commentary in the French daily Le Monde following news of the former International Monetary Fund chief's arrest.

Similar words appeared on the front pages of other French newspapers, and repeatedly there were the photos of the dejected Strauss-Kahn.

The affair made front-page news around the world

The 62-year-old Frenchman, a politician, a millionaire, and the leading light of France's socialist opposition, was arrested on May 14 by New York City Police, accused of the attempted rape of a hotel employee.

"I am, and we all are, stunned," said Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry who pleaded with the press to wait for the facts to be revealed and for the presumption of innocence.

No issue for the media

She also appealed for the media to "maintain decorum" - advice that French journalists tend to heed.

While they know about all the scandals of politicians and celebrities, they often do not report on them.

Private transgressions are not an issue, with any extra-marital affair regarded as trivial.

"A clear line has always been drawn between private offenses and public ones," explained Dominik Grillmayer from the German-French Institute in southern Germany.

"It has been said that we are interested in the achievements of politicians and not with what they get up to in their private lives."

The NYPD released Strauss-Kahn's prisoner movement slip

Former French President Francois Mitterrand had a second family, President Jacques Chirac had regular extra-marital affairs and Strauss-Kahn himself has been talked of as a wild womanizer. Unlike in other countries, where these issues would scandalize the media, they have never really been an issue in France.

The impact of seeing the pictures from New York of a tired and unshaven Strauss-Kahn appearing in court wearing handcuffs was therefore all the greater.

Conspiracy theories circulated rapidly, with survey showing that 57 percent of the French population believed Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a plot. Among Socialists, support for him was as high as 70 percent.

Fear of trial by media

The actions of the American legal system appear strange to the French, Grillmayer said. A key issue, he said, was that a person who is still presumed innocent should not be shown wearing handcuffs and unshaven before a judge in a courtroom.

The US media in turn viewed the French reporting style critically. "They said that the there was a 'conspiracy of silence' that was unacceptable," according to Grillmayer.

It was a clash of two cultures. In the US, the so-called "perp walk" from the cell of the accused to the courtroom is seen as a part of the culture of criminal justice.

The accompanying images and sounds are accepted features in the production values of news. It's all about catchy images, no matter what effect that might have upon a person's reputation or career.

Such recordings would not be shown by the French national broadcaster, with concern that it would influence opinion and lead to the accused being prejudged.

"In France and, fortunately, also in Germany it is almost completely unthinkable that a person who is merely accused of committing a crime should be portrayed in such a degrading manner," said media psychologist Jo Gröbel.

In France and Britain, suspects are often brought to court in vehicles with tinted windows.

High-profile trials – a media spectacle

For the worldwide media, celebrity trials are big business. Circulation of French daily newspapers rose sharply in the week following Strauss-Kahn's arrest. There was an increase of 93 percent, for example, for the Liberation newspaper in the greater Paris area.

Suspects in the USA are treated differently than in France

Along with the political and economic consequences of the affair, emotional reasons also play a role in generating interest, said Gröbel.

"It's the great story of a powerful man who falls from grace, and it's a story about men and women, something people always have an opinion on."

"If there are also pictures to go with it, then we have a great media story,"

It's about sex and power, as with the case of the former Israeli president Mosche Katzav, who was sentenced to seven years in jail for raping an employee. The alleged sex scandals of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also generate great interest.

"The media has now taken on such significance that, in the worst case, they could even affect the way that a trial is conducted," said Gröbel.

Careers might suffer irreparable damage. After his arrest, Strauss-Kahn resigned from his post following mounting pressure to do so.

Positive influence on debate

In French society, the scandal and the surrounding interest has had a positive influence on public debate, Grillmayer said.

Increasingly, women are expressing themselves in the media. There was a declaration in the newspaper Le Monde that was signed by more than 1,000 women. It denounced sexism in France as well as the 'trivialization' of sexual offenses.

Since the case of Strauss-Kahn case was made public, several women have complained of sexual assault - with some accusations against senior politicians.

The website "A Rose for Ophelia" has even collected money for the hotel employee that Strauss-Kahn is alleged to have attacked.

The trial begins in New York on June 6 and, if found guilty, Strauss-Kahn could spend 25 years or more behind bars. Observers will be curious in particular to find out how the French media reports back.

Author: Monika Griebeler / rc
Editor: Nicole Goebel

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