The image of a handcuffed Dominique Strauss-Kahn being led to a New York jail has hovered over France for days. Among the questions the episode has raised is a particularly uncomfortable one for the French: Did their laissez-faire attitude toward officials' private lives help produce the spectacle of a respected leader charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid?
"In truth, I am not astonished by this affair," says Jean-Paul Garraud, a parliamentary deputy who is a center-right spokesman on judicial matters. "In France, there's a real tolerance about our politicians. Maybe it's because of our monarchist past."
In the traditional French view, it's nobody's business if politicians commit adultery, pay for sex, or engage in orgies—so long as they do their jobs. Most people can see the difference between an extramarital dalliance and the violent crime Strauss-Kahn is charged with and to which he plans to plead not guilty. For French politicians, the boundaries may not look so distinct. No official in the country's recent history has been ousted over a sex scandal—and there have been some shockers. Last year, Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand admitted that he had paid for sex with boys on Asian vacations. He kept his job after explaining that the "boys" were of legal age.
Mitterrand is a nephew of François Mitterrand, who raised a child with his mistress, largely at public expense, while serving as President from 1981 to 1995. The arrangement was an open secret in the political and media establishment. Mitterrand's successor, Jacques Chirac, also had an eye for the ladies. In a 2001 memoir, his wife, Bernadette, wrote that she knew he had affairs but said, "My husband always came back." Calls to the former President's office in Paris were not immediately answered.
Similarly, Strauss-Kahn's aggressive pursuit of women was well known in France, yet little was said about it. One of the few to raise the alarm when Strauss-Kahn was named in 2007 to head the International Monetary Fund was reporter Jean Quatremer from the leftist newspaper Libération. Calling Strauss-Kahn's relations with women a "problem," Quatremer wrote, "He often skates close to harassment."
Against that backdrop, it wouldn't be surprising if some French politicians figured they could do as they pleased. What's more, they might be right: If a hotel chambermaid in France complained of being assaulted by a prominent politician, Garraud says, "I'm not at all sure that it would be treated as it has been by American justice."
Strange as the French might find it, a similar situation existed in the 1980s in Arkansas, when Bill Clinton was governor. Clinton was often on the prowl for sexual conquests—a fact well known to local news media because he sometimes made advances toward women journalists. Yet nothing was reported about it.
After Clinton became President, several women came forward publicly with allegations of sexual misconduct. Although never charged with any wrongdoing, Clinton in 1998 agreed to pay $850,000 to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit from Paula Jones, a former state worker who said Clinton had summoned her to a hotel room where he exposed himself to her. He denied Jones's account yet was held in contempt of court and fined after a judge found he had given misleading testimony. Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky came to light after Jones's lawyers subpoenaed witnesses to show that Clinton had a pattern of inappropriate behavior with women. Clinton's office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Clinton's impeachment in l'affaire Lewinsky was "incomprehensible to the French spirit," said France Soir in an article on DSK's arrest. In the past five years sex-related controversies have ended the careers of two governors and at least six members of Congress. Recently, Representative Christopher Lee of New York resigned after admitting he had sent a shirtless picture of himself to a woman while trolling for dates on Craigslist. In some cases an extramarital romance can trigger something bigger. Former Nevada Senator John Ensign resigned on May 3 after details came out about his affair with an aide. His behavior sparked an ethics investigation of payments and favors given to the woman and her husband. The Justice Dept. is looking at the case.
The bottom line: The Strauss-Kahn scandal highlights the risks of ignoring politicians' private lives, which can disrupt government.