Published November 17, 2014
The trans-Atlantic gap separating the U.S. and French justice systems and moral codes is as wide as the ocean itself — appalling a nation witnessing the unraveling fortunes of a favorite son, jailed IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Some of the charges leveled against Strauss-Kahn in the alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York do not exist in France. And if the case was being heard in France, the 62-year-old IMF chief might risk three to five years in prison instead of scores in the United States, a leading expert says.
Strauss-Kahn also likely wouldn't be sitting in a notorious jail right now on a suicide watch.
The photos of a potential French president — handcuffed, stooped, unshaven, tieless and whisked away to court before photographers — knocked the breath out of the French public.
The initial response was a collective "that would not happen here."
Not in a country whose laws protect even a petty thief from flashing cameras in a public space and televised court hearings like the one broadcast Monday from Manhattan Criminal Court. Not in a country whose traditions have long shielded the philandering of the powerful, at the risk of failing to uncover travesties of the law.
So different are French laws and mores, it is conceivable that Strauss-Kahn — innocent or guilty — failed to grasp the speed by which American justice runs its course, the weight given to alleged sex offenses and the egalitarian premise on which the U.S. judicial system is based until he sat in the infamous Rikers Island prison.
Despite the weight of the charges, it is likely, experts say, that had the alleged hotel scene taken place in Paris, Strauss-Kahn's dignity would have remained intact.
In France, unlike the U.S., the judicial process takes place largely behind closed doors and the political powers-that-be hold sway over prosecutors. It is also a country where for centuries, infidelities were a royal ritual and bedroom secrets known to all were never more than court chatter.
That unwritten bedroom code of silence is still largely respected, although the practice is bit by bit giving way to a demand for more public accountability.
"The French accept many more moral transgressions of their president, of their political class, of their elite. There is something ... a bit aristocratic" in French moral and legal culture, said Antoine Garapon, a magistrate and author of the book "To Judge in America and in France."
"The American culture is more democratic. You can head the IMF and be a citizen like others," he told The Associated Press.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski, another Frenchman, gained the status in France of a hounded hero when he was pursued by U.S. justice authorities around the world for jumping bail decades ago on a sex crimes charge.
Like Polanski, Strauss-Kahn has garnered more than a measure of sympathy in France, not just from fellow Socialists who counted on him to challenge conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's election, but as an alleged victim humiliated by the U.S. justice system.
Polanski was detained for 10 months — first in a Swiss jail then under house arrest in his Alpine chalet — as Swiss authorities decided whether to extradite him in a 1977 California child sex case. The U.S. demand was ultimately denied, and Polanski was freed in July 2010.
The comparison was not lost on the New York prosecutor this week.
Were the IMF chief freed on bail "he would be living openly and notoriously in France, just like Roman Polanski," Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel Alonso said.
U.S. Judge Melissa Jackson retorted that Polanski "has nothing to do with this" and "I am not going to judge this individual on the basis of what happened with Roman Polanski."
But deciding that $1 million may not be enough to stop a wealthy man from fleeing, she ultimately sent Strauss-Kahn to jail, until at least Friday.
The hotel maid, a 32-year-old immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, whose account to New York City police of the alleged assault triggered Strauss-Kahn's arrest, is in seclusion and waiting for justice.
But attention in France has focused on what is seen as the travesty to Strauss-Kahn's presumption of innocence.
In France, there are no cameras in the courtroom or perp walks, when police, sometimes en route to court, parade suspects past waiting photographers. A 2000 law forbids even portraying photo images or TV film of a suspect in handcuffs to ensure the presumption of innocence.
France's audiovisual authority, the CSA, sent out a reminder Tuesday of the French media's legal obligations. Dominique de Leusse, a lawyer specializing in defamation issues who has joined the Strauss-Kahn team, told The Associated Press he is considering filing a legal complaint about the images shown in the French media.
"We have laws that are protective of the dignity of the person and of the presumption of innocence," he said.
But there Strauss-Kahn was on French TV screens on Monday and fronting French papers Tuesday, the debonaire politician in his moment of ignominy. For many French, this was a man broken and delivered to his enemies on live TV.
Socialist lawmaker Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, writing on his blog, said he and others were "profoundly saddened by the images and attitudes of authorities who refuse him any dignity. We don't underestimate the gravity of the suspected acts, but there were images and humiliations that weren't necessary for the truth to manifest itself."
Having Strauss-Kahn jailed "is a kind of national humiliation," said political analyst Dominique Moisi, who dined with the IMF chief in Washington three weeks ago. "This is a man who incarnated France at the highest level of the financial world."
Strauss-Kahn's reputation as a seducer may have titillated the French, but the actual charge of attempted rape was a shocker.
"People knew he was a womanizer, even a quite extreme womanizer, but I don't think people were ready to face the accusation of sexual assault and attempted rape," Moisi told Associated Press Television News.
Still, Garapon, a magistrate who trains judges, said he does not believe Strauss-Kahn would have been imprisoned if the alleged assault took place in France.
"I think there would have been pressure,' he said. "There would have been multiple phone calls, to the Interior Minister's office, to the Justice Minister, the prosecutor."
What surprised the French most, he said, is the "spectacular and brutal dimension of American justice." Even the vocabulary of the charges, some of which don't exist in France, like forcible touching, is less "precise" and "crude" under the French system, Garapon said.
Strauss-Kahn is charged with attempted rape, sex abuse, a criminal sex act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching. The most serious charge carries up to 25 years in prison. Together, they carry more than 70 years in prison.
But in France, Garapon estimated Strauss-Kahn would probably risk three to five years in prison if convicted, although he admitted an exact count at this stage was difficult.
The Strauss-Kahn case has led to serious soul-searching in France.
The left-leaning newspaper Liberation affirmed Wednesday that its journalists "will continue ... to respect the private lives of men and women" it covers, with the exception of suspected sexual crimes. But it conceded that its journalists are asking whether they should have more strongly pursued rumors about Strauss-Kahn's womanizing.
Others voiced respect for the American judicial system.
"It must be reiterated that the acts are very serious," said Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet in the daily Le Figaro. "In France, we have a tendency to treat this lightly."
Garapon thinks the shock of the Strauss-Kahn case may "make the French reflect."
"The French discovered you don't take American law lightly," Garapon said. "That's its grandeur, and sometimes its excess."
Angela Charlton and APTN in Paris contributed to this report.