France is reeling over the shocking arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief who had been considered a front-runner to replace the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy as the nation’s president, on attempted rape and other charges after he allegedly assaulted a maid in a $3,000-a-night New York hotel suite. Amid the allegations from Strauss-Kahn’s supporters that he was framed, and the Gallic disdain for the American media’s salacious treatment of a man who has not been convicted of any crime, the case is prompting a good deal of hand-wringing across the pond about the code of silence that protects French politicians from scrutiny into their private lives. It’s a debate that’s overdue.
We’ve long thought that attitudes in Europe toward political sex scandals were healthier than those in the U.S. But the French may have taken it too far. Restrictive libel laws aimed at guarding the privacy of celebrities have thoroughly cowed the media there, making American-style investigations into a politician’s personal background nearly unheard of. Many consider this system superior — after all, a prominent figure’s extramarital affair should be between him and his wife, the theory goes, not fodder for public discussion — but it can also give the powerful the impression that no behavior is off-limits. There was ample evidence before this week that the thrice-married Strauss-Kahn was a serial womanizer if not a sexual predator, yet his multiple affairs and the allegations of sexual harassment against him were seldom mentioned by the French media.
Does it matter if a brilliant leader is also a sex addict? Not necessarily. The American media, like the French, tended to ignore such things half a century ago, and what the country didn’t know about President John F. Kennedy’s affairs didn’t hurt it. But sometimes it does matter. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is Exhibit A in the case against ignoring a politician’s personal life. His alleged adventures with an underage prostitute have not only embarrassed his nation, but the ongoing revelations about his sexual escapades and the criminal charges connected to them have made it difficult for him to continue governing. A politician’s sexual misdeeds can reflect more than his attitudes toward marriage; they can indicate his respect for women and adherence to moral, ethical and legal codes.
Somewhere between the French embrace of satyriasis among political leaders and Americans’ puritanical intolerance of sexual impropriety is a happy medium.