(IMPORTANT UPDATE at end)
The French have always liked to think Americans are yahoos, ascribing importance, as we are wont to do, to the private lives of our politicians. They, the true sophisticates, ignore such human peccadilloes to the extent that a complaisant Parisian press hid the existence of the illegitimate daughter of their president Francois Mitterand for decades.
Not that we Americans were much better. Frenchified, we ultimately gave a pass to Bill Clinton for getting oral sex from an intern in the hallway adjoining the Oval Office; I have not heard of anything that extreme happening, as yet, in the corridors of the Elysee Palace.
Still, we have a slightly different view of these things from the French. To them affairs are a normal rite of passage and we are simply square to make a big deal about them.
Wrong. They are the squares. Monumentally so.
How do I know? I have seen it up close, alas. I won’t get into the sad details, but some time ago I had an affair with a married French woman — I was single then — that went on for a couple of years.
I’m not proud of it in the least. It was stupid, immoral (yes, that) and eventually sheer emotional Hell. Besides hurting other people, most of them innocent, it drastically affected my work in a negative way and made me a liar on frequent occasions. In sum, I was despicable, weak, selfish and destructive of myself and others to do it.
But I did learn something about the French. Pace Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, there is nothing chic or hip about their adultery. After all the shared Gauloise and baiser volé, it’s just cheating. People don’t respect each other. People don’t trust each other. Indeed, they begin to hate each other. Life is wretched. It’s like a game of ritual self-and-other torture played out by a significant sector of their society — particularly in the elite classes — into oblivion.
I have often speculated that this casual acceptance of (note: not the existence of) adultery is related somehow to the decline of the once magnificent French culture, the disappearance for over a half a century now of the likes of the aforementioned Piaf and Montand. It’s hard to imagine them making a film today like Francois Truffaut’s riveting 1964 meditation on the perils of adultery The Soft Skin.
So I read with some interest the French reaction to the accusations of sexual abuse by the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, putative Socialist Party frontrunner in the race for the French presidency. Would they make a connection, as I do, between DSK’s alleged act, raping a maid in a New York hotel, which is obviously quite aberrant, and the larger cultural climate of their country? That’s a hard thing for any society to accept.
But moral disconnection seems to be at the root of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s behavior. A supposed leftist and one-time student communist, he lived the most extravagant personal lifestyle replete with three thousand dollar hotel suites, thirty-five thousand dollar suits (Strauss-Kahn is suing over this allegation by France Soir — but what if they’re only twenty thousand?), unlimited first class seats on Air France, Porsches, etc.
Even in Hollywood such hypocrisy would be frowned upon (well, mostly), but the French seemed to like it, his poll numbers going up even as the accusations of “champagne socialism” from the Sarkozy camp increased. A 2008 admission of adultery with an underling at the IMF — a young Hungarian economist — was essentially ignored after DSK made a pro forma apology. The French evidently admired him as a “grand séducteur.”
Now, of course, with accusations of rape and what they call “fellation,” things are different. But how will French society at large process this? Will we still be naive Americans with our prudish ways?
After all, entitlement is one of the principle causes of adultery and few have behaved with a greater sense of misguided entitlement than DSK. In a new development, we find the not surprising news that other examples of sexual assault on the part of the Socialist Party leader are beginning to surface — including one from another Socialist Party official who claims his daughter, a journalist, was traumatized by DSK in 2002. Expect more to come out of the woodwork.
The point, of course, is not that there is one sick man. There always is. But that there is a culture that enables him.
But enough of that. Let’s leave with the France we all love, the France that regrets nothing — until it should.
UPDATE: The following questions were asked of the IMF Press Office by PJMedia Washington Bureau Chief Richard Pollock:
Q. Why was he in New York? What IMF business brought him to NY?
Q. What was the IMF business in Paris?
Q. What is the accepted per diem for IMF employees at Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s level? Do you have a limit on hotel rates?
Q. Did Mr. Strauss-Kahn book his New York hotel through IMF channels or the IMF office?
Q. Was it customary for Mr. Strauss-Kahn to book $3,000 per night rooms? If it exceeds the per diem limit was were the provisions for its payment? Did the IMF or Mr. Strauss-Kahn pay for the overage?
Q. Will you release records of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s travel, hotel and amenity charges over the past year in which the IMF covered his expense?
IMF staff have clear rules for where they may stay and how much they may pay on official travel, with an established system of preferred hotels and set rates, negotiated centrally. The Sofitel is not on the list of New York hotels, which are generally standard business hotels. At present, the maximum hotel rate in New York for staff on official business is $386 a night, including tax and service charges.
The Managing Director was staying in New York on private business. As such, he pays out of his own pocket for hotels. We understand that the reserved room rate was way below the amounts mentioned. I would refer you to the Managing Director’s private lawyer, Bill Taylor, 202 431 6373 for any more information.
IMF press office