Perp-Walk the Ruling Class? L'Horreur!

"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.