According to a worrying CSA poll, it seems that 57% of the French believe that Strauss-Kahn’s arrest results from a conspiracy. The numbers have many Americans wondering: have the French lost their minds?
There are though many reasons to explain the polling result. As has been written about everywhere since last Sunday, French political culture is traditionally much more tolerant about sexual matters than America’s political culture.
French president Felix Faure (1841-99) famously died in a Paris brothel, and that didn’t cause much of a shock. Clemenceau quipped that the best part of love was the climb up the stairwell. He meant: in a brothel. As far as French voters and the press are concerned, any legitimate act between consenting adults is fine and not much to worry about it.
Americans are of course more religious than the French, yet that doesn’t really explain the differing views. The French were more religious in Faure or Clemenceau’s eras than Americans today. And in any case, the lack of interest in politicians’ private lives is could itself be compatible with a generally moral attitude regarding politics, at least in theory. The problem is that it just isn’t so.
In Strauss-Kahn’s case, as could be suspected, other stories are now emerging about previous incidents: one including Tristane Banon, a journalist Strauss-Kahn seems to have assaulted in 2001 or 2002 (reports differ), and a Mexican chambermaid during an official trip at a later date. Obviously, these incidents go much further than private life issues.
When Strauss-Kahn was appointed to run the IMF, Jean Quatremer, a journalist from the daily Libération, blogged about possible coming troubles due to DSK’s incapacity to control his urges, but the profession ignored him while Strauss-Kahn’s communication staff asked him to remove the post (which he refused to do).
What is emerging now is the realization that every political journalist in Paris was aware of the allegations surrounding Strauss-Kahn’s behavior and failed to reveal them. No one was there to blow the whistle. Even if we put Strauss-Kahn aside, there’s a larger question: what other stories is the press holding their silence on?
The French understand that there is a sense of “omerta” at work, an implicit vow of silence on the part of the media that may very well cover much more than just sexual or intimate issues.
Most French papers couldn’t survive in the marketplace alone and are only still in business after having been bought out by a larger industrial group. For their new owners, good relations with the government may be important.
Other players in the French media often rely on financial aid from the state. Public TV and radio are big players too and the news agency AFP is a public company. As a profession, journalists share various corporate interests, fiscal or otherwise. The bottom line is that French journalists depend heavily on the state and are strongly unionized as well.
Add to that the fact that politicians and journalists depend on each other for publicity and scoops and the general discretion about politicians’ intimate lives gets easier to understand.
What remains uncertain is whether the press does a better job when it comes to reporting on corruption in general. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Not long after Mitterrand’s death, the French public was surprised to discover an interview made by a Belgian TV channel in which Mitterrand dismissed a journalist for being too insistent about a recent scandal involving Mitterrand’s presidential staff illegally wiretapping various French public figures. The scandal was known in France, but the interview, which showed Mitterrand in a very bad light, wasn’t released until he was out of office.
The French public has been kept in an isolated news vacuum many times. The near-complete consensus against the Iraq war in 2003 is partly explained by the almost compete absence of any dissenting points of view in the media during this period (in addition to some outright lies in reporting).
The current atmosphere, with politicians feigning “shock” about Strauss-Kahn’s attack allegations and more or less insinuating that he is in trouble because he’s an affluent and influential Frenchman, are reminiscent of this period.
All that makes it relatively unsurprising, but depressing, to discover that a majority of the French believe in a conspiracy against Strauss-Kahn (although there isn’t even a theory underpinning that belief).
Less than a week ago, Strauss-Kahn was thought to be not exactly a perfect family man, but still a respectable person, thanks to the media’s omerta — and now he is in jail. It may take some time for the French public to make sense of it all. Hopefully though the scandal will make the public open their eyes a little more.