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May 20, 2011

Theodore Dalrymple on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Super Injunctions: Theodore Darymple explains why he would rather have the French press than the British - cover-ups are preferable to vulgarity

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple was in France to witness the public and media reaction to Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest.

I was in France when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York, and the reaction of the French press interested me. There was quite a lot of indignation about the humiliation visited upon him, and in truth it is difficult to maintain the presumption of the innocence of a shabbily dressed man, unshaven, who is being brought handcuffed to court between several policemen. When the judge said that she was worried about the possibility that Strauss-Kahn would flee because he had already tried to do so, she was in effect presuming his guilt: for if he were innocent and he had a flight to catch that had been arranged long in advance, what else would he do but catch it? If he was innocent, he was not so much fleeing as keeping an appointment.

However, it is surely not only in the United States that humiliations are visited upon the accused who are supposedly presumed innocent. The treatment of remanded criminals in France is not always tender, any more than it is in England. The main difference, perhaps, is that in France a man as important as Strauss-Kahn would be treated differently from other prisoners, if (as is unlikely) he ever found himself in their ranks.

The most interesting discussion in the press, in the absence of hard facts about the case, concerned the failure of the French press and media themselves. They had not revealed, or at any rate placed much emphasis upon, all they had known about Strauss-Kahn's behaviour. He was not merely a womaniser: a female deputy of the Socialist Party said that she did not feel safe alone in a room with him. A young woman alleged on television in 2007 that he had tried to rape her in 2002, but the name of her attacker was replaced in the broadcast by a beep, supposedly in fear of an action for defamation. But his conduct was so notorious that Sarkozy had warned him, when he went to the International Monetary Fund, not to behave in America as he had behaved in France.

Had the French press and media failed in their duty, or had they maintained the correct distinction between private and public life? The French often pride themselves that they are more respectful of the private life of public figures, more mature about sexual matters, and generally less prurient, than les anglo-saxons, who are at one and the same time libertine and puritanical, in short grossly hypocritical.

It is obvious that the two opposed policies - to tell all or say nothing - have different disadvantages. The first leads, when carried to excess, to a general vulgarisation of the culture, well-illustrated by Britain, the most vulgar country in the world (at least that is known to me). The second, when carried to excess, leads to the impunity of the powerful in a sphere well beyond the private. Since most policies are carried to excess at some time or another, the question amounts to this: do you prefer the vulgarisation of culture to the impunity of the powerful? Within limits - and clearly there are limits in France - I prefer the latter.

One of the reasons, not generally adverted to in the foreign press, for the journalistic silence about the behaviour of the elite is the special tax regime that journalists enjoy in France. In a country with very high tax rates, where a visit from the fisc is viewed with about as much pleasure as a visit from the Gestapo, this is a considerable privilege, definitely worth preserving. It creates an identity of interest between the elite and the journalists, who are inhibited from revealing too much about anyone with powerful protectors.

The creation of privileges is, of course, one of the consequences, if not the intentions, of a high-tax regime.

Let us, however, suppose that, with regard to DSK, as he is universally known, the journalists were not motivated by a desire to maintain their privileged tax position. Were they right not to have peddled all the information they had about him, not to shout it from the rooftops? Where does or should the privacy of a public figure end?

Some of the commentary in France was outright bizarre. A novelist called Molina, writing in Libération, suggested not only that DSK was guilty, but that, in behaving thus, he was a hero, a moral examplar who destroyed his own political chances and thereby deliberately renounced power, something that very few had the courage to do. This rather overlooks the fact that he could just have said ‘No’ to his candidacy for the presidency and retired into private life, if that is what he wanted to do. No heroism on his part was required.

Shortly before his downfall, Strauss-Kahn told a journalist, in private of course, that there were three things that might ruin his chances of the presidency: his relationship with money (he likes it a lot, and the good life that it brings, despite allegedly being a socialist); his relationship with women; and the fact that he was Jewish. It is not surprising, then, that his arrest, which happened so shortly after he said this, should have given rise to conspiracy theories in a country that is apt to believe them anyway. According to one survey, 57 per cent of French people believe that Strauss-Kahn was set up or entrapped.

Should the French press have told all before the events in New York – with the implication that the events might then have been averted? It seems that Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour went considerably beyond the normal even for a tolerant country. It might be argued that his private behaviour in France made him unsuitable for his post in the IMF, not because he was incompetent, but because he was incapable of conforming to the mores of the country in which the IMF had its seat. On the other hand, one might have expected a man of his intelligence and stature to be able to control himself when necessary.

As in so many matters, the relevance of a man's private life to his suitability for a position of public trust is a question of judgment, rather than of hard and fast rule. Public figures are not, and will never be, plaster saints; and wisdom before the event is always considerably more difficult than wisdom after it. Boring as happy mediums no doubt are, I should wish for just such a happy medium between corrupt French indulgence towards the elite, and vulgar, hypocritical, prurient British interest in the elite's private affairs. If, for some reason, a happy medium were not possible, I should prefer the French way.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from amazon.co.uk and from amazon.com.


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