It is too soon to measure the extent of damage caused to the Socialist party by the Dominique Strauss Kahn scandal, and it would be a mistake to underestimate the effect it will have on the collective French conscience, but the simple answer to both questions is: "beaucoup."
Stolid party president Martine Aubry is doing her best to look like she is at the helm of an intact Socialist party that will keep its head high and hold its primaries on schedule. As she is fond of saying, France is waiting for the Socialists to restore its damaged international reputation, install social justice, heal the wounds inflicted by the unspeakable Nicolas Sarkozy. Party leaders will make a show of unity before breaking ranks and grabbing at the coattails left behind by Dominique Strauss-Kahn in flight. Opprobrium that might be directed at the erstwhile undeclared frontrunner is deflected onto the "brutal" American system of criminal justice.
But things are happening too fast. It is all out in the open. There isn't enough damage control in all of France to handle this story. The fate of the Socialist party is tied to the downfall of DSK for reasons that go beyond politics to reach the collective conscience. It is dawning on French society that you cannot have juicy posts on the big international team and expect to play by the outdated rules of the provincial French system. The prestige of a French president of the IMF entailed certain obligations. As it happens, monsieur Strauss-Kahn -- innocent until proven guilty -- was 10 minutes away from a miraculous rescue. If the Air France flight to Paris had taken off, he would have been out of the hands of the NYPD. Innocent or guilty, would he have come back to the United States to face a possible jail term of 15 to 74 years? France doesn't extradite and in a case like this would never prosecute.
The question is, will the collective conscience face reality? If a powerful international personality did impose his sexual will on a 32 year-old Guinean chambermaid in a luxurious suite at the Sofitel, the concrete facts will ultimately lead to severe punishment. The crime, if it were actually perpetrated, cannot be made to disappear with a flurry of rhetoric or a hypocritical respect for privacy...as it would be in France.
This culture of impunity is not limited to public figures and their sexual exploits. It has nothing to do with pleasure or virility. It is deep-seated, generalized, and unexamined. For all the outrage over the cruel American system that submits a suspect to indecent exposure, commentators are starting to realize that the almost future French president may be guilty of a crime. By bending over backward in the first 24 hours to respect Strauss-Kahn's presumed innocence, they were necessarily dragging the alleged victim -- the chambermaid -- through the mud. Suspicions of entrapment would draw other prominent figures or parties into the cesspool.
Transfixed by video of a haggard handcuffed DSK paraded in front of the Harlem police station, French society came close to epiphany. Protesting like blushing virgins at the sight of this once powerful man standing in a courtroom with lowlife drug dealers, brawlers, and thieves, the collective mind was shaken to its depths. Much was said about American "accusation- based" justice as compared to the much finer French system in which an investigating judge mulls over the case for years, looking at the evidence for and against the defendant, before deciding whether the case should be tried. In a rare mood of fair play the media did invite international lawyers to explain the broad powers granted to defense lawyers in the United States, which do not exist here.
The latest polls reveal that 62% of Socialist sympathizers think Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the victim of a conspiracy. As if the Internet hadn't even been invented, the CSA (broadcasting control agency) warned media that French law prohibits the display of degrading images of suspects, even when the images are of foreign origin. Horror stories about the Rikers Island prison are circulating, as if French prisons had no tales to tell. But something has to be done to cover the noise of the latest leaks -- the future-former-president of the IMF did spill his seed in that luxury suite.
Examples of the exquisite discretion and merciful leniency of the French judicial system abound. The Gang of Barbarians case is eloquent. It shows how this discretion leaves society deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent to deal with the ills that afflict it. The 27 defendants in the kidnap-torture murder of Ilan Halimi were tried in first instance, and again on appeal, behind closed doors because two of the defendants were under 18 at the time the heinous crime was committed. In the United States they would have been tried as adults. Yalda, the young woman who knowingly lured 24 year-old Halimi into the death trap was sentenced to 9 years in prison and will likely be released after serving only half the sentence. It was revealed this year that she has been sleeping with the prison director for years, and enjoying special privileges. The (married) director, who says it is true love and he will start a new life with her when she gets out of jail, was relieved of his functions, and the story dropped into oblivion. Youssouf Fofana, mastermind of the Gang of Barbarians, who battered Ilan for weeks, then slit his throat and set him on fire, was sentenced to "life" in prison -- meaning 22 years, with possibility of parole in 20 years...or less...because that's how it goes here.
The Socialists, now clamoring for decency and reserve in the face of a personal tragedy, have been indulging in systematic character assassination of ministers of the Sarkozy government. Fingers are pointed, lurid accusations are made by politicians and reverberate in the media, Le Canard Enchaîné publishes incriminating documents, Rue 89 and Marianne spill leaks from police investigations, complaints are filed, the highest jurisdictions are solicited. Finally the pressure is so intense that the minister -- innocent or guilty -- is forced to resign. Labor Minister Eric Woerth was stomped as he piloted the reform of the retirement age. Minister of Foreign Affairs Michèle Alliot-Marie was axed for treating Tunisian President Ben Ali as an ally and hanging out with a rich Tunisian businessman when protestors had already gathered for the jasmine revolution. The latest target of this righteous indignation was Finance Minister Christine Lagarde...whose name is now mentioned as a possible successor to DSK at the IMF!
The left portrays President Sarkozy as a hard-hearted bling blinger who enjoys the company of rich people and won't pass laws taking their money away and giving it to the poor. The Socialists promise to give jobs to the unemployed, money to the poor, and equal rights to immigrants. What would an African chambermaid who lives in the Bronx deserve under their system?
In fact, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the dream candidate because he appeals to a broad sector of voters, beyond the narrow limits of the left. He inspires respect, admiration, and affection. It is normal to shudder at the thought that he might be unfairly accused. His wife, former journalist Anne Sinclair, says she does not believe a word of the accusation. She stood by him in 2008 when, shortly after taking his post at the IMF, he had an affair with a married subordinate. "Everyone" knew he was a womanizer. (A reliable source who was a comrade of DSK 30 years ago in the Young Socialists Movement tells me his idea of politics then was "cherchez la femme.") No one thought he was a brute. Who would have imagined he would end up in a sordid American jail?
At this writing, it is rumored that DSK's hotshot lawyers will go for a "mutual consent" defense. If so, what are the chances of convincing a jury of honest citizens that the head of the IMF tucked into his schedule a twenty-minute romp with a chambermaid before taking off for Europe to save Greece and, ultimately, the eurozone?
If confirmed, this strategy sounds like the last bad decision in a lifelong hype. Aided and abetted by friends, family, associates, media, and his devoted wife, the Great Economist was allowed to run wild, to hide his disgraceful behavior under the wraps of his prestige, and pursue his bad impulses all the way to perdition.