DSK Drama Has Paris Burning

By: Rachel Marsden

Despite the often contradictory headlines coming out constantly in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the French reaction seems to be getting increasingly strident, revealing the fault-lines of a society confused about its own treatment of women, elites and - enfin! - sex itself. From here in Paris, it's been as amusing as witnessing a virgin fumbling with his zipper, given the usual silence around such matters.

One of DSK's most ardent defenders, philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, is already labeling DSK a victim. And only a martyr - Joan of Arc, say - ranks higher in France. Levy appeared in Europe1 radio studios this week with his trademark white shirt unbuttoned to his navel. "There is only one victim, that's DSK," said the pompous intellectual.

Unfortunately, this unobjective view is all too common here. While some Americans like to complain about out-of-touch liberals, the social elites are much more vocal in France, monopolizing media platforms.

But prominent women are also seizing the opportunity, as the DSK case has sparked a rare debate about personal mores and the limits of tolerance among the French elite. Weekly magazine Marianne devoted a lengthy cover story to the subject: "Women and the DSK Affair: What they really think. What machos inflict on them at work. The end of the omerta in politics - my eye!"

And as with our own sex scandals, there is political jockeying. The case is leading to the usual catfights between opposing parties. Center-right parliamentarian Bernard Debre called DSK a "sexual delinquent," to which the Socialist Party's Pierre Moscovici responded by branding his colleague across the political aisle "unfit for democracy."

Yet others are just getting increasingly sick of hearing about it. Socialist presidential primary candidate Manuel Valls said in a radio interview on Wednesday morning: "I no longer have any interest in commenting on this . . . torrent of s--- which today invades the airwaves and French political life."

And for all the talk in the American media about DSK becoming president, Le Monde claims that DSK ally Martine Aubry took a phone call from DSK in the aftermath of his release from house arrest last Friday in which he reportedly claimed that he won't run. But that hasn't stopped people on both sides of the Atlantic from dreaming about the havoc DSK could wreak if he ran - and actually won.

All this has the très sophistiqués French engaged in that most American of pursuits: media spin. Take it from someone who has worked in crisis-management public relations: Image, in the end, is at least as important as a verdict, and can even perhaps be used to leverage an outcome in a system where elected prosecutors can be exposed to media pressure. The French are aware of the difference between their system of appointed judges and that of America, where Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has his next election to think about, along with upholding justice.

Americans are often criticized for being too simplistic in their views, while the French pride themselves on nuance: Here, deriving complexity from simplicity is considered high art. But with the DSK case loaded with so many unknowns, simplistic positions now suddenly seem to be in vogue. Perhaps it's a reaction to cognitive dissonance. Processing the various divergent reports and spin is just too complex - even for the French.