“It’s all my friends and I talk about these days,” Marc Gross, a Harvard-educated American running one of Paris’s few vegan eateries, Bob’s Juice Bar, tells me. He’s talking, of course, about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the I.M.F. chief and French presidential would-be accused of sexually assaulting a maid at the Sofitel Hotel in Midtown. It sounds familiar in a way talk about sex scandals of the past decade hasn’t, even overshadowing the recent revelation that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a love child, while married to a Kennedy, perhaps the most notoriously sex-scandalized family in American politics.
But D.S.K. has quickly replaced J.F.K. as the top-of-mind libidinous politician with impulse-control problems. Even more significant, he’s replaced the Famous American President accused of sexual relations with an intern.
Yet even there lies a striking contrast: Americans did not come screaming to the defense of President Clinton–a suspected womanizer–when he was accused of infidelity. But the French convention is that Mr. Strauss-Kahn–also a suspected womanizer–must be the victim of a conspiracy. So, what is it about the French?
The D.S.K. scandal has reinforced cultural differences between America and France in the most striking instance since that unfortunate period when French fries somehow became freedom fries in more conservative parts of the country. Yet, the charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn–currently awaiting trial under a Lindsay Lohanesque house arrest in Manhattan, on a $1 million bail and a $5 million bond–are fundamentally serious and have highlighted clashes, not just between Americans and the French, but also between New Yorkers and Parisians of both nationalities. It would seem the two cities and their denizens have much in common, as liberal bastions of the mostly progressive. Yet, in recent weeks, the lines between them have become sharper.
“He did something that was not right,” said Ripert. “Even if he got set up, he’s not supposed to cheat on his wife. It’s a scandal, obviously, and it reflects poorly on French people and on France.”
In France, many are quick to suggest a conspiracy is afoot. A widely circulated CSA Institute poll found 57 percent of French respondents believing Mr. Strauss-Kahn was “the victim of a plot,” the number rising to 70 percent when asked of France’s liberal contingent, even after numerous interviews with women who had been aggressively pursued for sex by the accused in previous encounters.
“I seem to be in tune with what many people feel here,” Mr. Gross–a former New Yorker–admits, expounding: “It’s kind of a paranoid sense that there had to have been some sort of set-up. Right when he was on this rise, and week after week you are reading about how high he was in the [presidential] polls, and we’re waiting for his official declaration, and talking about the first Jewish president in a long time, it seemed like the timing was just … incredible.” On the matter of the infamous “perp walk”–a continued point of soreness for French media outlets–he shares what’s emerging in France as a common perspective:
“Maybe I’ve been here too long or something,” he said, “but it seemed shocking to me that it was even constitutional. Seems like an abuse of the prosecution’s power. Because we have this principle of innocent until proven guilty, right?”
Infamous French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy is in tune with the juicer, taking to publications ranging from Der Spiegel to The Daily Beast, defending “my friend” and criticizing an “American judge … delivering [Strauss-Kahn] to the crowd of photo hounds,” then characterizing American coverage as “drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who-knows-what obscure vengeance,” concluding that he’s disturbed by the “accusatory” nature of our judicial system.
Yet, even forgetting his friendship with the accused, Mr. Lévy’s France is the same country where tabloid reporters once so aggressively perused Diana of Wales that she died in a car crash as French paparazzi continued to snap away at her. Tina Brown, The Daily Beast’s executive editor, was Diana’s biographer, and the site itself is known for occasionally capitalizing on sensational news events (to put it mildly).
Which is not to say that les Americains are never salacious. Locally, the tabloid dailies are lined with purple prose alluding to the former I.M.F. chief’s hypersexualized nature: “LE PERV,” the New York Daily News used as a header, referring to the “sex-crazed … French big” who “can bid au revoir” to his career after continuing in his “skirt-chasing” ways. The New York Post was far less kind, describing him as a “testosterone-charged … jet-setting moneyman” who is a “sleazeball,” “randy,” “Pepé Le Pew-like” and “un animal.” Even The New York Times characterized the allegations against him as “tawdry.” Most of the American coverage has–however subtle, or not–equivocated the French with their casual attitudes toward sex. At the very least, much of the coverage has erred on the side of a vague presumption of guilt, based on Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s notorious past.
But are we really that buttoned up compared to our French counterparts? The chef of New York City’s French seafood mecca Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert, argues differently. Growing up, he saw America as a place with far more casual attitudes than his homeland.
“In France, we see America as a very free, relaxed country about sex. Kids in college in America are actually much more wild than the kids in Europe, that’s for sure,” he says. “When I was growing up there were stupid movies about college kids growing up, and I was like, wow, over there, it’s really wild.”