“Brutal.” “Cruel.” “Chilling.”
These are some of the terms French officials have applied to the Strauss-Kahn case — but not to the alleged crime itself. Rather, they are reacting to photos and videos of Stauss-Kahn being subjected to that American ritual known as the perp walk, being handcuffed and escorted by a phalanx of New York police detectives in response to charges that the IMF head sexually assaulted a hotel maid.
Even French journalists have been stunned at the sight:
“Last night, the chilling image of DSK handcuffed nailed our mouths shut,” wrote Stéphane Jourdain, a French reporter for Agence France-Presse, using Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s initials, his familiar French moniker. “Not one journalist asked him for a reaction when he came out.”
This shock on the part of the French may be a pose, of course, but it is far more likely to be real. In this country we’ve become accustomed to such sights, but not so in France, especially when the high and mighty are involved:
“The heart can only contract before these humiliating and poignant images that they’re giving of him,” Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a leftist senator and former minister, wrote on his blog. “A horrible global lynching! And what if it were all a monstrous injustice?”
That latter concern — that the person undergoing the perp walk is, after all, only an alleged perpetrator, and that he or she may actually be innocent — is certainly a valid one. Even in this country, the suitability and possibly prejudicial nature of the perp walk has long been a matter of debate, although courts for the most part have generally upheld the legality of the practice.
In the Strauss-Kahn case, the French are reeling not only from the unaccustomed sight of a perp walk itself, but from the fact that so august and powerful a figure has been subjected to it. French society exhibits more consciousness of class, status, and rank than ours, and its legal system reflects this.
One example is French defamation law, which makes it especially difficult to write anything negative about a public figure without being vulnerable to a libel suit in which the defendant must prove that he or she launched a “thorough investigation” before making the allegedly defamatory statements about the famous person. Contrast this to the American legal system, which requires that the plaintiff in a libel case involving defamation of public figures prove actual malice on the defendant’s part in order to win a judgment.
The French do not appear to relish seeing the mighty brought low. As Con Coughlin, executive foreign editor of the British Telegraph, observes:
Any attempt by a French policeman to handcuff a prominent politician would be tantamount to committing an act of treason. In America it doesn’t matter whether you are OJ Simpson or an international statesman of the stature of Mr. Strauss Kahn: if the cops believe you’ve broken the law, you’ll soon find yourself paraded in public in handcuffs before being thrown in the slammer.
Actually, it does matter who the perp is in America, but not quite in the way Coughlin meant it. The fact is that the perp walk is more likely, not less, to be foisted on the rich and famous, and particularly on white collar criminals.
It was popularized in the ’80s in New York City by Rudy Giuliani during his tenure as U.S. attorney, when he used it as a favorite tool to humiliate former executives charged with insider trading and to boost his own media visibility.
In Strauss-Kahn’s case, the handcuffs and the police guard were theater, but they were not solely for show. Strauss-Kahn may be a white-collar type, but the offense with which he has been charged is most definitely not a white-collar crime. As described, it was an act of violence. What’s more, his conduct afterward made it clear that a good argument could be made that he is a substantial flight risk — literally, because the police apprehended him on an Air France plane that was only moments from taking off.
The flight risk is not only obvious in Strauss-Kahn’s case, but it is not a small matter, and was the main reason he was denied bail. If the police had been just a little slower in getting to the airport, and Strauss-Kahn had been able to depart for France, he would most likely have been beyond the reach of American law because France would almost certainly have refused to extradite him.
Precedent is the well-known Roman Polanski case, in which another celebrity accused of sex crimes in the U.S. fled to France and remained free thereafter for over 30 years. When Polanski was finally arrested in Switzerland in 2009, the reaction of a large part of France and Europe was horror at those vindictive boors, the Americans:
“To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history — and as he was traveling to an event honoring him — is absolutely horrifying,” French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand said after Polanski was arrested upon arrival in Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival, where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award. “There’s an America we love and an America that scares us, and it’s that latter America that has just shown us its face.”
However, not everyone dislikes this particular side of the American visage. Richard Fernandez points out that some non-European observers seem to take satisfaction in how Strauss-Kahn was treated:
If you go down to the Times of India you will read comment after comment that says “only in America could such a powerful man be taken off an airplane and made to parade in a police lineup”; “this is true democracy” and “my faith in the world has been restored.” For a world that is accustomed to watching the powerful stamp on the faces of the common man, this … arrest is … almost unbelievable.
If Strauss-Kahn is ultimately found not guilty, the perp walk naysayers will feel even more vindicated in their anger at those barbaric and declasse Americans who handled a distinguished man with such disrespect. They can’t complain that he’s being treated entirely like a “common criminal,” though, because Strauss-Kahn will be getting some special treatment during his stay on Riker’s Island:
Strauss-Khan will be held in protective custody … because of his high profile, said city Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello. Unlike most prisoners, who share 50-bed barracks, Strauss-Kahn will have a single-bed cell and eat all his meals alone there. Also, when he is outside his cell, he will have a prison-guard escort.
It’s not quite the $3,000-a-day suite at the Sofitel, but it will have to do for now.