The DSK drama has pretty much replaced the weather as the default topic of conversation in Paris this week. It’s very easy to find self-parodic essays in various French journals that try to justify DSK’s alleged crimes, or turn this into an indictment of American “frontier justice.” But among the people I know here, the reaction to the whole event has been completely recognizable. While the tone and weight of various strands of reaction vary from person to person, in general, people have reacted with a mix of shock, disgust, and introspection.
These are obviously informal impressions collected from a small, extremely non-random sample of people who might be censoring their real views when speaking with me. My only point is that contrary to how it might seem just from reading media analysis, the French and American public reactions to this event seem vastly more alike than different.
There are some differences between how the legal process is handled in America and how it would be handled in France.
The biggest complaint about the process thus far is the objection to the “perp walk” of a man accused of, but not yet tried for, a crime. There are sensible arguments on both sides of this question. On one hand, the freedom of the press to report, and the principle that all accused, regardless of social station, should be treated alike, are important values. On the other hand, this practice is rife with the potential for abuse, as the state can use it to try to influence the potential jury pool, and has done so in the past. Neither argument is seen as without merit on either side of the Atlantic, but the balance between these competing goods is struck differently in each place.
Second, while it is illegal in France for the media to show pictures of the accused in restraint prior to the trial for the reasons just indicated, major media outlets here have named the rape accuser. Laws around this were struck down in the U.S. starting in the 1970s and 1980s, but major American media outlets will generally not do it before or during a trial.
Third, how sex crimes are defined and punished is not identical between the two countries. However, this difference in attitudes toward sex, marriage, and the workplace can easily be exaggerated. I don’t advise you to explain to your French spouse that you have commenced an affair with your co-worker because “il est normal.” You’re very likely to find yourself and your clothes on the sidewalk, while getting an impromptu lesson on the creative use of the French language delivered form a third-floor balcony. And before people start building grand theories about what the sex lives of French politicians say about French society, they ought to figure out what the sex lives of Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, the “hiking the Appalachian Trail” guy, and so on (and on and on) say about American society in general. I suspect what they really say is that narcissistic personalities in any society are disproportionately drawn to, and enabled by, careers that provide fame and power.
I’d say that a summary of French take on the differences between how this has been handled in America and how it would have been handled in France is that (1) American justice is somewhat rougher than it should be toward the accused, but (2) it is admirable that an immigrant chambermaid can trigger the machinery of the state to bring action against an extremely powerful, well-connected person without it being hushed up. Both sides of this contain elements of truth, and play to pre-existing stereotypes, so therefore get lots of traction with public opinion.
But the similarities in attitude are dominant. The differences in what can be shown or who can be named in the media are not some kind of ancient common-law differences. The French legal prohibition on pictures of the accused in restraint is only about ten years old, and the non-binding practice of not naming rape accusers in the U.S. has also only evolved in recent decades. There are good-faith arguments on both sides of these questions, and both are variations on a theme of trying to provide due process that is fair to all sides. I could easily imagine the French prohibition migrating to the U.S., and the U.S. prohibition migrating to France (or new media breaking down this practice in the U.S.). And for all the talk of French “aristocratic” attitudes or whatever, most people here hate the idea of the powerful abusing privileges — and specifically of a powerful man trying to rape a hotel chambermaid –and like seeing arrogant, privileged people being brought down a peg. As in America, most people recognize that so far, we’ve only heard one side of the story, and that the guy should be fairly tried in court rather than in the media — and most people agree that if he did what is alleged, he deserves to go to prison.