French-bashing is a pastime of increasing popularity among conservative politicians and media pundits. The French attitude of superiority, recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th Century (“the French want no-one to be their superior”), facilitates this sport. This is, however, most unfortunate for former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (often known simply by his initials, “DSK”), as he fights felony sex charges leveled against him in New York City.
The rush to judgment against the wealthy and flamboyant Frenchman has turned the legal process into something more like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, than the measured and deliberate search for the truth which is the presumed goal of our judicial system.
The charges against Strauss-Kahn, splashed across the front page of tabloids from the Big Apple to every European capital, are well-known. The now-former chairman of the International Monetary Fund and potential Socialist Party candidate for the French presidency, was arrested earlier this month in New York City on accusations he sexually assaulted and unlawfully detained a maid is his Sofitel Hotel suite.
After the alleged offense occurred, Strauss-Kahn checked out of the hotel to catch a previously-booked flight to Paris. Police literally yanked him off the plane just before it was set to take off.
Authorities then took their time in arranging a bail hearing while Strauss-Kahn was detained at the infamous Rikers Island. He finally was released on May 20th after posting a $1 million cash bond and another $5 million insurance bond. The court seized his passport, required him to wear an electronic monitor at all times, and limited his movements to a New York apartment.
Strauss-Kahn’s sexual dalliances are well-known in France and elsewhere; and the man himself seems to wear his nickname, “the Great Seducer,” proudly. This notoriety, however, complicates his current circumstances, which some supporters claim was simply another in a long line of “consensual” encounters. Still, even a self-proclaimed Lady’s Man is entitled to a presumption of innocence and a fair legal process; something here easier said than done.
As the Queen of Hearts famously declared in Alice’s Wonderland, “sentence first, verdict afterwards;” and this edict has been taken to heart by conservative pundits, from Glenn Beck to Ann Coulter. For these fair-weather civil libertarians, the Bill of Rights includes an important footnote, making its guarantees of due process inapplicable to wealthy Frenchmen.
Not all conservative writers, however, exhibit such a pinched and prejudiced view of legal fairness. For example, in a recent column, conservative writer Bob Tyrrell appropriately noted that the supposed facts of the case – or at least the charges appearing in the media – keep changing. Tyrrell also accurately points out that the manner of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and initial appearances, including the infamous “perp walk,” clearly are designed to inflame and prejudice.
The notorious and unnecessary “perp walk” to which Strauss-Kahn was subject has an unfortunately long tradition in federal white-collar prosecutions. The most famous prosecutor to employ this means of humiliating persons charged with crimes was Rudy Giuliani, who used it to maximum public relations advantage during his tenure as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan in the late 1980s. Notwithstanding that many of those subjected to Giuliani’s walk of shame were later found not guilty or had their convictions overturned, in many other instances the strategic goal of softening the person for plea bargaining was achieved.
While the charges against Strauss-Kahn are serious, the manner in which he is being tarred and feathered in the media — essentially because he is rich, French, and associated with an international organization – should make all Americans who believe in the importance of fairness in our legal system, cringe. The process thus far will serve only to cement prejudices already prevalent in Europe and elsewhere that our legal system is neither fair nor impartial.