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Strauss-Kahn case aggravates French-US cultural divide

5 min

The arrest and subsequent release of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has brought US-French cultural differences bubbling to the surface. Dominique Moisi, a specialist in US-French relations, sheds further light on the matter.


The French bristled when former IMF chief and Socialist Party power player Dominique Strauss-Kahn was paraded handcuffed and poorly shaven in front of US press photographers, just hours after being charged with sexually assaulting a New York City hotel maid. On the other hand, Americans expressed shock at the French press’s silence regarding prior accusations of sexual misconduct leveled at Strauss-Kahn, as well as at what they see as a broader French lenience toward men in power and their behaviour around women.

Meanwhile, the French media wasted no time naming the accuser – an act considered by the US press to be a major breach in journalistic ethics.


Indeed, since Strauss-Kahn was arrested in May, France and America have looked at one another across the pond with skepticism and incredulity, as a case characterised by a combustible mix of sex, power, money, and immigration takes dramatic twists and turns. At the heart of the multiple levels of incomprehension are differences between French and US legal systems, journalistic practices, conceptions of feminism, and more.

We spoke to prominent French political scientist Dominique Moisi, a former Harvard professor, senior advisor at the French Institute for International Relations, and a specialist in French-American relations. He provided further insight on the cultural divide complicating an already thorny case. Why exactly are the French finding fault with the US in this case?

Dominique Moisi: Above all they are finding fault with what they see as brutality, the unnecessary humiliation of a man who’s just a suspect. One moment he’s at the top of the world, and the next you handcuff him, you warn the press he’s going to come out at a certain time. The French see it as the deliberate humiliation of a man in a brutal manner.

The French are wondering: is America a civilised country? Meanwhile, America is wondering: is France a democratic country, when the elite misbehave and no one seems to care?

F24: What are the main differences in the way these types of cases are handled in France and America?

D.M.: In France, for a person like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, you would handle things very discreetly. There’s an element of doubt, we don’t know if he is guilty or not, he has important responsibilities. In France, you would leave the press out of the picture as much as possible; it’s a protection of the individual.

But it’s difficult to have a one-sided vision of this situation. In the US, the prosecution ended up recognising its responsibility in the undoing of the case. The revelations didn’t come from Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer, but from the prosecution. So when you look at it that way, the American system worked. It’s a system in which everyone is equal in front of the law. But again, on the other hand, is that really true, given the amount of money that is involved, the fees of the lawyers?

A lot of people in France think the American system failed. They see Americans as having created a huge scandal all over the world without seriously checking the personality of the person accusing Strauss-Kahn.

F24: The case has also brought out differences in French and American approaches to feminism, as well as issues such as sexual harassment. How would you describe these differences?

D.M.: I think we’re seeing the confrontation of the Puritanical attitude in America with the Marivaux tradition of 18th century France [Pierre de Marivaux was an 18th century French playwright whose works often featured situations of flirtation and bedroom farce]. There are also obviously great differences between a mostly Protestant country and a mostly Catholic country.

But what strikes me is that in France, there has been a divide between men and women in their response to the Strauss-Kahn case that is as great as the divide between the US and France. The majority of French women were convinced of his culpability, while men were much more prudent. Many men came forward saying “Well, he’s not violent, I know him.” There were a lot of testimonies defending him, all coming from men. So in some ways, the real difference on this issue is between America and French men specifically.

F24: In America, Strauss-Kahn’s political future would be very dim after this case. What about in France?

D.M.: It may actually help him in France in some ways, but not to become the next president. It has damaged him more than it would help him. Maybe, if one day he returns, he can say: “I know America well and have suffered from it. So how could you call me a lackey of American capitalism, when basically I have suffered more than anyone else from the American system?”

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