The Paranoid Style in French Politics

06/14/2011 04:55 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

I have been living in Paris while witnessing momentous events, from revolutions in North Africa to earthquakes in Japan, but by far the biggest story for the French this year was the arrest on May 14 of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, after being accused by a thirty-two-year-old housekeeper at Manhattan's Sofitel Hotel of forced oral sex and attempted rape. Observing this story from Paris is like watching parents get the news that a beloved child has died mysteriously while traveling abroad. Shock and horror were quickly replaced by denial. How could this have happened to France's former Minister of Finance and the presumed winner of next year's presidential election?

What happened, at least according to the majority of French citizens, was a conspiracy to bring down DSK, as he is known. On May 18, when polled on the question, "Do you think Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the victim of a plot," fifty-seven percent said, "Yes." Among members of Strauss-Kahn's Socialist Party, seventy percent said "Yes."

The French are great consumers of American cop shows like CSI. They love hard-boiled stories about perps and pimps. But they couldn't believe their eyes when the handcuffed man emerging from the back of the NYPD cruiser was a former economics professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, where I have been teaching this spring, and where the students were excited by the prospect of having a Sciences Po professor occupy the Elysée Palace. Suddenly the perp walk of the handcuffed defendant became a shocking symbol of police brutality. "The United States has no presumption of innocence," say DSK's numerous defenders.

The shock surrounding l'affaire Strauss-Kahn was all the greater because nothing was known about DSK's sexual transgressions, or, to be more precise, what was known had been censored or repressed. Conveniently forgotten, for example, was the fact that he had nearly been fired from the IMF for an affair with one of his staff members, who described how she had surrendered to his sexual advances because, "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't." Politics in France resembles kabuki theater in Japan. Confrontations are ritualized and vast swatches of reality are hidden from public view. During the last presidential election, no one knew that the two major candidates were separated from their domestic partners, and, if they did know, they were not supposed to talk about it. When a photo appeared on the cover of Paris Match showing Nicolas Sarkozy's then-wife, Cecilia, and her lover visiting New York City, the editor of the magazine was fired.

After DSK's arrest, the French media were flooded with stories about his forcing himself on women, visiting swingers' clubs, and getting caught in a police sweep of prostitutes working in the Bois de Boulogne. Photographing perp walks is illegal in France and so, too, is polling the public about a suspect's innocence or guilt. But Rikers Island looks so foreign to the French (in spite of all those cop shows), and this case is so anomalous in a country that hides its dirty laundry behind libel laws and other statutes defending "la vie privée," that everything about the DSK affair is now up for grabs. Remaining constant, though, is the belief that he is the victim of a plot.

What explains the paranoid style in French politics? In this case, the conspiracy theories arose first from shock and disbelief. They were a form of denial. A public uninformed about the private life of its politicians will be surprised by what they learn. The French have always been prone to conspiracy theories. With so much of the country's political machinery hidden from view, France is ripe for political rumors and palace intrigue. L'affaire Strauss-Kahn has hurt the country's sense of pride and honor. A Frenchman good enough to play on the world stage has suddenly fallen into the pit. It is too painful to admit that France's vaunted art of seduction can possibly slide into behavior that is sordid and potentially criminal.

Baroque in their convolutions and based on nothing more than speculation, the supposed conspiracies against Strauss-Kahn fall into two general categories. Either we have a disgruntled woman seeking revenge after consensual sex, which is apparently the basis for Strauss-Kahn's legal defense. Or we have a honey trap, a plot masterminded by one of DSK's enemies to bring him down before the French election. Among the likely Machiavels are Strauss-Kahn's rivals in the Socialist Party or the current president of France, who, before May 14, looked almost certain to be voted out of office.

Recently, I heard another conspiracy theory so brilliant in its Cartesian logic that it exculpates everyone involved. The story goes like this. Strauss-Kahn had flown from Washington to New York, not to have lunch with his daughter the following day, but to engage an escort service in providing a sexual liaison. The request from a known customer was unusual only because, this time, Mr. Strauss-Kahn was ordering that the woman come dressed as a hotel maid. He jumps out of the shower, and throws himself on the maid whom he thinks is a call-girl but is actually the housekeeper. What is so remarkable about this scenario is that it confirms everyone's story. Strauss-Kahn engaged in what he thought was consensual sex. The maid was violated.