The story of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault against a hotel maid has been all over the American media this week. Surprisingly, it has also been all over the French media, which normally turns a blind eye to the politico's transgressions. Not anymore, says NPR’s Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Thursday, news broke that Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned from his position as manager of the International Monetary Fund. The French politician said he needed to focus all his energy on fighting charges that he sexually assaulted a maid in his New York City hotel room. Unsurprisingly, the American media were all over the story. An identical uproar in France, however, may have marked a watershed moment in French media and society. Eleanor Beardsley is NPR’s correspondent in Paris. Eleanor, welcome to OTM.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Great to be with you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is a guy who had a reputation even before this alleged crime, but the reputation wasn't really widely circulated in the French media. Can you tell me why not?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Well, he had a reputation as - it’s known as a dragueur here, someone who loves women, a womanizer. But there’s sort of a charm to it. He’s a very smart man, he’s a very charming man, and he loves women. But I don't think people really knew the extent of his problem with it. There were hints of it. About five years ago a book came out called Sexus Politicus that talked about politicians and their sex lives, and there was a whole chapter on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and how he goes really close to the border of harassment. But it was too sensitive. Nobody touched it. I was told today by a journalist if someone had ever sued him or gone to court, then we would have reported on it, but it was just sort of seen as a private matter.
BOB GARFIELD: How much of this is an issue of insufficient media attention and how much of it is an issue of a society that sets kind of a low bar for personal comportment among people of power?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Yeah, I think it’s sort of a combination. I mean, France is a Latin country, and the last thing they want to be like is like England, where you have tabloids that are spying on everyone’s private life, and if, by God, you had a kiss with somebody who wasn't your wife or husband, you would lose your job. But obviously, this isn't about private life if this behavior that he’s reported to have done is true. I mean, this is violence, and he, he’s reported to have done it in 2002. So journalists are now like, oh, my God, are, are we not doing our job? What’s going on? Do we need to be more like the British and Americans? And so, there’s a lot of soul-searching going on. People are obviously saying that some more attention does need to be paid to these things because it can bleed over into the public life. And this is very ugly what he’s been accused of, and it’s not at all womanizing and it’s not at all cute or manly. It’s, it’s shocking.
BOB GARFIELD: I took particular note of a remark attributed to an unnamed aide of French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he had warned Strauss-Kahn not to get alone in an elevator with an intern. Now, if these were his marching orders for his job at the IMF, it makes me wonder how much smoke has to be visible before someone in French public life sees the fire.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Yeah, somebody should have looked into that closer. But I think whatever happens with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I don't think the French media will ever be the same, or maybe even society. I mean, I've been here seven years, which isn't that long, but it’s by far the biggest thing that’s happened since I've been here. It really is rocking society to its depth, like lifting the carpet and shining a light under there in all these dark corners.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think the pendulum will swing too far to the total tabloidization of the private lives of politicians?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Nobody wants to see that kind of sleazy stuff where you’re just trying to catch people in their private lives to ruin their careers, so I don't think so. But I think there’s going to be some confusion at first because the journalists realize they have to do a better job, so where do they draw the new line? There’s a lot of journalists who probably will dig in with relish and then some who won't. There are also strong privacy laws. You can't just print pictures of whoever you want and put them on the front of your magazine. You have to have permission. But definitely I don't think it’s going to go back to the way it was.
BOB GARFIELD: If this is some sort of historic inflection point in French society, it didn't seem to begin that way. The immediate reaction was a kind of anger at the American justice system.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The shock of seeing Dominique Strauss-Kahn unshaven, sweating, haggard, being led by five policemen on what’s known as the “perp walk,” you know, and it’s completely illegal in France to show pictures of someone handcuffed before they've been convicted. But TV announcers showed it and they said, we have to show you these images because it is your right to have the information. They couldn't believe it. Here was like their star politician, Frenchman on the world stage, somebody they were proud of, in like one of these American television series. It was beyond belief. But they've released the supposed victim’s name here so, you know, I keep telling them that’s shocking to us. But there are still people saying, you know, the American justice system might be harsh, but look at it. This chambermaid is getting a fair trial with someone on – of the likes of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, so there’s less and less people angry and people realizing, well, look at his background. Maybe it did happen. Let’s let the justice do its work.
BOB GARFIELD: There is a class aspect to all of this, right?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Yes. I mean, there’s definitely an elitist class in France, which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was part of, who are above sort of everyone else, and no one touches them. And then women who were affected by him, they just stayed out of his way. Nobody bothered to file a complaint or tell him to stop, you know, and publicly, because he was Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
BOB GARFIELD: If he somehow survives the prosecution, does he have any future in French government or politics?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: No one’s really 100 percent discounted him yet. But it’s just been too shocking, and he’s lost his allure. You know, and I think more details are going to come out, and even if he does [SIGHS] go free, I, you know, I don't see how he can really resurrect himself politically.
BOB GARFIELD: Eleanor, thank you very much.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Very good to be with you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Eleanor Beardsley is NPR’s correspondent in Paris.