The French were almost unanimously incredulous when Bill Clinton was being interrogated over his affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1998. I remember trying to explain to a Parisian taxi driver the US president was being pursued not for sexual immorality but for abusing power and lying under oath. Mr Clinton should not be impeached, I said, but, still, “he has acted like a …a …what is the word I’m looking for in French?”.
“Un homme?” the cab driver suggested helpfully.
At first glance, the collapse of US prosecutors’ rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former International Monetary Fund head and French presidential contender, teaches a similar lesson: America’s legalistic doctrines of sexual morality have been held up to the more cynical but realistic French ones and found wanting. This week Cyrus Vance Jr, the New York district attorney, successfully petitioned to drop the charges he brought against Mr Strauss-Kahn in May. Mr Vance cited the inability of the accuser, his chief witness, to tell a straight story about almost anything. But if America’s system of regulating sexual morality has undergone another embarrassing moment, it will be France’s system that has to change.
In a fascinating, erudite and essentially wrong essay about the Strauss-Kahn affair, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner found its roots in puritanism – albeit “a perverse puritanism, in line with the sexual revolution, which speaks the language of free love”. Feminists and Republicans have collaborated to leave the US “bereft of any culture of love”, Bruckner believes. Certainly there is something disgusting in the giddily anatomical idiom of some of these court filings.
The extreme legalism of US attitudes towards sex, however, comes not from puritanism but from diversity. Legalism is what you get when nothing can be agreed upon. Most European legal systems assume a common moral code. The US system is designed to regulate interactions among highly mobile drifters who may be some place far, far away tomorrow. Rape seems a more present danger in such circumstances. A rich foreigner is a maximum flight risk. A neglected but crucial aspect of the Strauss-Kahn case was that France has no extradition treaty with the US.
There are terrible problems with this US system and they have created twisted incentives. Although it professes to care about due process, the US countenances several kinds of double jeopardy. Defendants acquitted on local charges can be re-prosecuted federally under civil rights laws. Defendants judged innocent of any crime by a jury can be brought before another “civil” court that can make its own judgment. (Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyer is still keen to bring Mr Strauss-Kahn before a civil court, where he can be questioned about his past sex life.) The interaction of criminal and civil suits makes the legal system susceptible to blackmail and hoaxes, as in the false accusations of rape brought against the Duke lacrosse team in 2006.
Even so, there is something nightmarish about the Strauss-Kahn case, as Mr Vance describes it in his court filings. One of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s French defenders wrote that this scandal will become a movie, and a bad one. No – Ms Diallo is a fascinating and complex character. In her own way, she is as sophisticated as the man she encountered in suite 2806 of the Sofitel New York. She was a model employee, according to court papers, with no criminal record and no foreknowledge of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s stay. Lab reports do indicate a sexual encounter.
But prosecutors noted that “she has been untruthful to law enforcement about so many other things that we simply can no longer credit her”. She lied under oath and under penalty of perjury about the circumstances of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s alleged crime. Most alarmingly, “over the course of two interviews …the complainant gave a vivid, highly detailed, and convincing account of having been raped in her native country, which she now admits is entirely false”. She did this, the prosecutors allege, by memorising a tape of a fictional rape, which she recited. She allowed tens of thousands of dollars to be moved into her bank account by her fiancé in Arizona, a convicted drug dealer, and she was recorded speaking to him of Mr Strauss-Kahn’s wealth.
The French journalist David Revault d’Allonnes said in an interview that in the US, “Dominique Strauss-Kahn would never have become what he became in France”. That is true. France retains the sexual morality of village and hierarchy, but it is an anachronism. It has just had a glimpse of the kind of sexual morality that prevails in a diverse, on-the-move society, where consensus is lacking and trust is not assumed. Now that France, too, has that society, it is going to get that kind of morality.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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