The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has left the French shell-shocked. The violent and voyeuristic nature of the accusation, the political prominence of the accused, and the globalization of the scandal make it a perfect storm for yet another bout of anti-Americanism in France. But so far the atavistic reflexes have been limited and restrained. Where did French anti-Americanism go?
Whatever their party affiliation (with the exception of the far-right National Front), the French have been experiencing a collective exercise through the five stages of grief since the DSK news broke out on Sunday morning.
First was denial. How could a man on top of the world, reputed for his professionalism and competence, assured to be competing in and likely to win the French presidential election, so completely self-destruct at the height of his glory? To be sure, his lust for women and philandering were a hardly disguised secret in French politics, but there is a wide gap between seducer and rapist. So the French concluded that something was fishy about this story. Maybe the New York police made a mistake. Maybe the accuser had an ulterior motive. The friends of DSK made the media rounds to proclaim his innocence, and the internet soon was abuzz with elaborate conspiracy theories. Indeed, two days after the revelations, 57 percent of the French believed that this was a set up.
Second came anger. When Strauss-Kahn was initially denied bail and the reality that evidence may exist against him started to sink in, France turned to laying blame. And the culprit was, to be expected, the United States.
The American justice system was first to be indicted. The images of DSK's perp walk were shocking in a country where it is forbidden to broadcast pictures affecting the presumption of innocence of the accused. The following 24 hour news cycle was dominated by denunciations and analyses of the brutality and savagery of American justice procedures. Though used to watching American crime shows on television, the French were given a crash-course on the American justice system where the prosecution seems to have the upper hand, where the accused is degraded and treated with what many see as cruelty, where money apparently can buy you better conditions, and where in many jurisdictions, including NYC, the elected DA must take into account political considerations. As French public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut put it, the United States has a "barbarian judicial system."
The American media was next on the hit list. The muckrakers were already digging into DSK's past -motivated by Puritanism and greed, both of them equally appalling to the French. Unlike predatory Anglo-Saxon journalism, private lives have traditionally been off limits in France. Journalists and politicians congratulated each other on having managed to preserve a French exception when it comes to "the bedroom."
The denunciation of the US justice system and media practices both fit the traditional anti-American tropes honed in France over centuries -a land of savagery and lack of civilization, a place where Puritanism meets hypocrisy. And also, as suggested by outraged former minister Jack Lang, a country where French-bashing still pays off.
With a few days hindsight, however, what is most surprising about the fallout of the DSK scandal in France is not how much, but rather how little displays of anti-Americanism it has provoked. To the contrary, the scandal is now turning into a teachable moment and a frank analysis of the comparative merits of French and American society. Perhaps this is the bargaining stage: if we understand the American system, perhaps we can expect it to treat one of our own fairly?
The flamboyant declarations by Bernard-Henri Lévy who was trying to help his friend by complaining that the American judge had treated DSK "like any other" subject of justice backfired. The next news cycle in France was about introspection. What if the American justice system actually had some features that could be replicated, such as the equality of treatment? A flurry of accusatory articles popped up in the French press denouncing how a defendant of DSK's stature would never have gone through the same legal troubles in France -unlike a random "Benoit" or "Karim." As socialist and DSK friend Manuel Valls publicly confessed, criticizing the American justice system also puts the spotlight on the weaknesses of French justice. This realization that perhaps the Americans might have components in their justice system that should be replicated in France might have left many with the depressing thought - "maybe we are not as wonderful and superior as we thought: so what is now our place in the world?"
Many analysts, mostly women but not only, seized on the scandal to praise an American society where it is easy (read, easier than in France) to denounce sex crimes and violence against women.
As for the French media, they, too, quickly went into soul-searching mode. By refusing to report beyond the "bedroom door", had they been complicit? Why doesn't France have a tradition of investigative journalism? Should French reporters be importing best practices from their American counterparts? Ahhhh, acceptance.
Surprisingly, the DSK scandal so far has not driven a wedge between France and the US and not resuscitated the age-old reflexes of anti-Americanism. For those who tried to exploit it, it did not pay off. French anti-Americanism ain't what it used to be!