Reading the American press, one gets the feeling that most French people see DSK as a martyr whose political rehabilitation they eagerly await. There is probably some truth to this. According to one recent poll, “only” 51% of the French do not want DSK to continue his political career. Among socialist sympathizers, enthusiasm is even greater: 57% expect DSK to rejoin the fray, compared to 40% who don’t. This is hardly a ringing endorsement, especially for a man whose nomination was once a foregone conclusion. Still, these numbers suggest resilience, particularly given all the dirt on DSK dredged up since his arrest. American journalists, moreover (as in this New York Times story), are fond of arguing that one reason the French are letting DSK off the hook is anti-Americanism. Again, this is not totally wrong. But as an explanation, it smacks of narcissism. Even when they’re against us, it’s still about us.
Yet whether one is “pro” or “anti” DSK—or “pro” or “anti” American—may not be the crucial point. The DSK affair matters because it struck a chord with French public opinion. Certainly, the critical judicial question is what happened at the Times Square Sofitel on May 14. But the affair’s import transcends that incident. It has become a political Rorschach test, revealing what the French see as their society and political system’s most deep-seated problems. All criminal charges against DSK (in the US, anyway—the Tristane Baron case is just beginning) may be dropped. Yet if he returns to French politics, he’ll face detractors from across the political spectrum. And they have been carefully honing their arguments.
Consider Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN), who could well repeat her father’s 2002 feat next year by qualifying for the run-off. For decades, the FN has, by opposing immigration and European integration, successfully cast itself as a genuine “outsiders’” party, representing the economically, educationally, and culturally (if not ethnically) “excluded” against the Tweedledum-Tweedledee policies of the center-right and center-left.
Without missing a beat, Le Pen immediately painted the DSK affair in these terms. The scandal, she claimed, was not simply DSK’s conduct, but the way that French elites scrambled to protect one of their own. This was no surprise: these very elites had long conspired to shield DSK’s “pathologies” from public scrutiny. She observed: “The entirety of the political and journalistic class was rustling with stories not of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s behavior as an inveterate seducer, but of his behavior as a harasser.” But the powers-that-be were more preoccupied with their private interests than the public good. The socialists knew of DSK’s “fragilities,” yet were “prepared to place this man at the head of the French state.” Sarkozy’s decision to give DSK the IMF job was a “Machiavellian [scheme] to name a man whose reputation was known at the head of the IMF to rid himself of a political rival”—even if it might “besmirch our country before the whole world.” For the FN, the message of the DSK affair is clear. French elites look after themselves. Not France.
Le Pen also denounced a request by the deputy socialist leader Harlem Désir that Sarkozy personally secure DSK’s release from jail in a press release tellingly entitled “The Caste Tries to Defend One of Its Own.” Her message is relentless: elites are different than you and me. “Thus, without restraint or shame,” it reads, “the French oligarchy, astonished that one might apply the law of ordinary citizens to one of its own, officially requests that France’s Head of State intervene in favor of a member of the nomenklatura who is accused of a crime in the United States, a country founded on the rule of law if ever there was one” (note the strategic—and entirely uncharacteristic—pro-American flourish). Connoisseurs of the Front’s xenophobic discourse will hear the meta-message: a black Frenchman (and former anti-FN activist) has requested a Hungarian-Jewish president’s assistance in freeing a rich Jew from prison. But the point of meta-messages, after all, is that they don’t need to be stated explicitly. Still, funny people, those elites, aren’t they?
Meanwhile, the other end of the spectrum condemns DSK for somewhat (if not entirely) different reasons. For the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (the New Anti-Capitalist Party, or NPA)—born in 2009 when the Trotskyist Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) reorganized itself as a broad anti-globalization coalition—the real issue is not what DSK did on May 14 but his larger responsibility for implementing the IMF’s neoliberal agenda. One can get a flavor of this rhetoric from remarks by an activist identified simply as “Claude” that appear on an NPA-affiliated blog. After perfunctorily criticizing the American judicial system, Claude declares: “That said, I feel for my part no compassion whatsoever for DSK, who, though he is a victim today, is nonetheless one of contemporary humanity’s great slaughterers. The policies that he has gone along with and amplified at the IMF in recent years have in fact brought about the ruin and the devastation of many developing countries, strangled local economies, created civil war, and brought about hundreds of millions of deaths, maybe more … That he falls today because of a rape story is a joke, since he would never have been condemned for his other crimes.” In recent elections, the NPA has garnered between 4% and 5% of the vote. These votes will be crucial to any left-wing candidate’s victory. Moreover, by attracting disaffected leftists, the NPA could deny the socialist nominee a place in the second round.
Finally and most importantly, women and feminists have seized on the affair not to attack DSK himself, but to cast a floodlight on French society’s alarming tolerance for sexual harassment and rape. This was the object of a petition published by Le Monde on May 21, championed by several feminist associations. It has received some 6,000 signatures, including those of such public figures as the journalist Audrey Pulvar and the philosopher Geneviève Fraisse. Once again, the petition’s force lies in its choice to focus less on the merits of the legal case against DSK than the cultural fault lines that it has uncovered.
“We are angry, revolted, and indignant,” the petition begins. “We do not know what happened in New York on May 14, but we know what happened in France this past week. We have witnessed a breathtaking resurgence of sexist and reactionary reflexes which, among a certain sector of the French elite, are very quick to reassert themselves.” Remarks by public figures—most notoriously, socialist Jack Lang’s observation that “no one died”—“illustrate the impunity that reigns in our country when shameless sexism is expressed. In any other case of discrimination, such tolerance would be deemed unacceptable.” Not only do comments like these “minimize rape’s seriousness,” but they “prove the extent to which the reality of violence against women is poorly known. This is particularly troubling when it concerns the elites who claim to run our society.”
The petition concludes: “The public figures who lend their voices to stereotypes that one hoped belonged to earlier times insult all women and anyone who believes in human dignity and struggles daily to promote equality between men and women.” Like it or not, if DSK intends to pursue a political career, he will have to take responsibility for the public discussion that the May 14 incident unleashed. He will have to explain why his desire to return to politics does not “insult all women” and “anyone who believes in human dignity.” Such public confessionals are not part of French politics, but if ever there was a moment when the culture seemed to demand one, it is now.
DSK could still enter the presidential race. There is no serious evidence that the May 14 incident was a set-up by his enemies. But it might as well have been. The affair has brought out into the open a host of deeply-felt social and political anxieties—elitism, economic liberalization, and sexism. If he wants to run, DSK will have to make the case that he is capable of addressing these issues—even if, in the eyes of American justice, he is absolved.