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Article published the Thursday 19 May 2011 - Latest update : Thursday 19 May 2011

Strauss-Kahn arrest - are the French too soft on the rich and powerful?

US front pages pull no punches on Strauss-Kahn
AFP/Emmanuel Dunand

By Tony Cross

The furore in the world’s media over IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest has led to an impassioned debate. Are the French too soft on men in power and too tolerant of their sexual peccadilloes?

 The debate has not lacked self-righteousness on both sides and sometimes seems to take already established prejudice as its starting point.

But the difference is real and can be seen in the media’s handling of the scandal.
 
While US tabloids broke the news with headlines like “Le Perv” (Daily News) and “Sleazy Money” (New York Post), “DSK Out” (Libération) and “Thunderbolt on the presidential election” (Le Figaro) were about as daring as it got in the French press.
 
That’s a sign of French obsequiousness towards the rich and powerful, according to most English-speaking and some Francophone commentators … or vulgarity and failure to respect the presumption of innocence on the part of  "Anglo-Saxons”, according to the French media’s defenders.
 

Rikers Island entrance
Rikers Island entrance
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Cultural differences over what constitutes a scandal and what should be said in public certainly exist.
 
France is the country where a president managed to have a parallel family throughout his term of office, without the media publishing a word about it – a state of affairs which would be unthinkable in either the UK or the US. But, although taxpayers paid for their upkeep, many argue that François Mitterrand’s peculiar private life did not make him a worse – or, for that matter, a better – president, so where was the public interest?
 
The argument that a public figure’s sex life is a private matter, is widely accepted in France, in principle, if not in dinner party discussions, and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s perceived lack of discretion in that department seems to have contributed to the slump in his popularity.
 
But, although much of the coverage of DSKgate shows a disturbing tendency to confuse rape and infidelity, the IMF chief is not accused of cheating on his wife but of a criminal act, which all but the most cavemanish male chauvinist regard as a serious one. Reporting that is surely justified, especially in the light of Strauss-Kahn’s apparent presidential ambitions.
 
Some French commentators believe that, had the allegations been made in France, they would have been hushed up.
 
Veteran feminist Gisèle Halimi has said that she is “certain that, if this affair had happened in France, we would never have known about it”, while Isabelle Germain, of Les Nouvelles News, argues - in a British paper – that a “code of silence reigns”.

Dossier: The Strauss-Kahn affair rocks France, IMF

 
Although, as our press reviewer Michael Fitzpatrick has pointed out, French press coverage has varied according to the political sympathies of the different papers, a certain caste solidarity does seem to have operated in DSK’s favour.
 
“In France, the case has swept to the top of the news agenda. But it has done so with an unequivocal message: poor DSK!” comments Germain.
 
Not only have Strauss-Kahn’s friends, such as publicity-addicted philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy, claimed that the IMF boss has been “thrown to the dogs”, but his political opponents in Sarkozy’s UMP have been remarkably restrained, with family-values champion Christine Boutin speculating that he might be the victim of a honeytrap.
 
As Halimi and Germain point out, sympathy for the possible victim has been far less evident.
 
That was especially true after the publication of photos of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs, looking dishevelled and humiliated as he left a police station on his way to apply for bail.
 

Elisabeth Guigou
Elisabeth Guigou
Reuters

Former justice minister Elizabeth Guigou said that publishing such photos is illegal in France – for nobodies as much as for bigwigs – thanks to a law passed on her watch. Guigou, a Socialist like Strauss-Kahn, judged them “of an unheard-of brutality and cruelty”. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers say they are considering legal action on the question.
 
Ironically, although our reporter Clea Caulcutt found relative indifference on the streets of Paris, the publication seems to have increased public sympathy for Strauss-Kahn and an opinion poll showed 57 per cent of French people believing he was the victim of a plot.
 
Why would that be?
 
Many people seem to find it difficult to believe that someone so highly placed could risk all for a fleeting and forced sexual encounter. Others point out that certain people would profit from Strauss-Kahn being knocked out of the 2012 presidential race. After all, over the last few months they have been subject to a barrage of commentary – in both the French and international media – assuring them that Strauss-Kahn is the only viable alternative to Sarkozy, who does not enjoy universal acclaim these days.
 
Franco-American tension also probably plays a part. It’s not true, as the Los Angeles Times apparently believes, that the majority of French people hate the US. A large number, from Globish-speaking businesspeople to would-be rappers in the banlieue, have embarrassing wannabe-American tendencies. But that doesn’t mean everyone has forgotten the Freedom Fries, “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys” diatribes in the US at the start of the Iraq war or British tabloid “Hop-off you frogs” rants. So, yes, some resentment does persist.
 
And then there is the fact that the case has not yet gone to trial. Anglophones may scorn the French media’s forelock-touching tendencies but are those American headlines such a great example of journalistic impartiality? And, with Rupert Murdoch’s UK titles hit by a phone-tapping scandal, does France need to adopt British or American tabloid culture?
 
Whether it does or not, it is probably going to get an increasing measure of it. The internet makes it increasingly pointless to try to enforce laws like the one that Guigou is so proud of. It also means that editors know that they risk losing readers to foreign media if they sit on stories.
 
France now has a number of muck-raking journals and sites, ranging from the venerable Le Canard enchainé to the controversial Médiapart, getting up the noses of the rich and powerful. So things are changing. It remains to be seen if it’s for the better.

 

tags: Dominique Strauss-Kahn - France - Internet and new technology - Media - New York - Nicolas Sarkozy - Rape - Scandal - sex - Sexual assault
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Comments (6)

How well does RFI know USA press?

NY Post is not at all a well-respected publication (ordures. Don't insult Americans by calling it "journalism." Daily News is not much better.

Why did RFI even cite these 2 publications as your examples? Very Bizarre. Most Americans outside of NY don't even know these 2 sensationalism-driven tabloids.

But more important, the 2 are of poor reputation. In fact, if this wasn't RFI, this story's credibility would have gone down to 0 -- zero, nul -- as soon as those 2 rags were cited as your 2 "American" examples.

Credible media in USA (e.g., New York Times) did not cover DSK's arrest with such disgusting presumption of guilt. But they are allowed to report his arrest and the details stated on the police report.

Blame the Victim

The absolute disgust most French feel in seeing a photo of DSK who hadn't shaved stands in marked contrast to the total silence that has come from the French about the publication of personal details, including the name, of the alleged victim. That the French reject the restraint shown by most of the Western world toward sex victims makes their moans about the disheveled accused come across as silly at best and at worst, chauvinistic.

Printing of photos of accused who have not yet been found guilty

If it is so distasteful to the French - the idea of printing pictures of the "still to be found innocent or guilty" accused, then why is your paper - and the other French papers - reprinting all the distasteful pictures? Are you not making it worse? Or is a different fire being fueled - such as the conspiracy theory fire?

DSK honeypot trap

If Strauss-Kahn was so suspicious about being “set up” by political foes, why did he immediately consent to violent quickie sex with an unknown woman who suddenly appears in his suite? If DSK is so sex-crazed he can't avoid falling into a possible trap with a strange woman, then he's not wise enough to be president of anything, much less France.

It's not a great narrative either: a powerful, well-educated, wealthy, white, married, male, Jewish politician who claims having consensual violent quickie sex with a powerless, uneducated, poor, African, widowed, female, immigrant, devout Muslim maid. Good luck getting a sympathetic jury, DSK.

American tabloids

The two examples your give of headlines from US newspapers are actually the two exceptions. The NY Daily News and the NY Post are trashy tabloids that are unique to NY City and have no counterparts for that type of "journalism" at any other newspapers in the US. They are only read in NYC, and are so uniquely bizarre and unprofessional - with their cartoonish headlines - that you should never use them as the example of how American newspapers are covering a topic.

american journalism

You site two American "newspapers", "The Post" owned by the Australian, Rupert Murdoch which is essentially a tabloid and the New York Daily News, which is a close second. The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and other real newspapers featuring real journalism did not feature the story in this way. It is impossible to compare Liberation or Le Figaro to the Post and The Daily News and to do so is to further escalate the prejudice that French people would have toward the American reportage of this tragic story in the press.

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