Thirty years ago, I spent my junior year of college in France. Other than their disgusting love affair with tobacco and a somewhat more troubled relationship with soap, I found very little to criticize.
Alas, this was the Mitterrand era, so it was a relatively short-lived honeymoon. Monsieur le President was a socialist, a hero who had fought the Nazis during World War II and the free market capitalists afterwards. He and his followers were so far to the left, they made Ted Kennedy look like a member of the John Birch society. As someone who adored Ronald Reagan and wasn’t shy about saying it, this made for some awkward conversations about politics.
But nowhere near as awkward as the conversations I had about culture. It was never my intention to do an Alexis de Tocqueville and catalogue the differences between the French and Americans, especially since my French was grammatically perfect but completely devoid of nuance and vernacular. I could discuss the symbolism of pestilence in Camus, but not the dating habits of ‘les garcons’ and ‘les filles.’
This didn’t stop them from making snide comments about how puritanical Americans were (apparently, the dubbed version of “Behind the Green Door” hadn’t yet made it to Paris.) They were constantly criticizing us for our inability to leave our politicians alone, and just let their private lives remain private. Of course, this was years before Gary Hart engaged in monkey business, Newt Gingrich played musical wives, John Edwards played the merry widower before he even was one and Bill Clinton gave new meaning to the word ‘consensual.’
But there was still Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, and all the Kennedy boys. It was this sense among my French friends that men should be allowed to do what they wanted in the privacy of their cathouses, as long as they did a good job at the office. (Clinton, ever the model of efficiency, actually eliminated the middle madam by turning his office into a cathouse.)
It’s been over thirty years now, but it all came back to me this week, when I read about International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his recent run-in with the NYPD. Strauss-Kahn, affectionately known by his friends as “DSK,” was taken off of a plane on Saturday evening and charged with having raped a maid at the Hotel Sofitel in Manhattan. He maintains his innocence, and he’s entitled to that presumption.
But there is enough forensic evidence of the attack, and DSK has a history of sexual aggression (both welcome and unwelcome,) to convince a New York judge to deny him bail and send him to Rikers pending the next hearing.
Not surprisingly, this has caused a furor among the French, many of whom believe that there is some shadowy conspiracy against this extremely powerful and internationally popular politician. But that’s not the most interesting reaction. A large number of people believe that DSK is being targeted not because he committed an actual crime but because of America’s supposedly puritanical approach to sex (apparently, they haven’t yet seen Mademoiselle Snookie and La Plage de Jersey.)
In France…public opinion wisely places this lifestyle choice in the private domain, as long as it….involves consenting adults. This is probably due to our Catholic heritage, which tolerates sin as long as you regularly do penance.
In puritanical America, however, seeped in its rigorous Protestantism, one tolerates sins involving money over those involving the pleasures of the flesh.
At first glance, I’m wasn’t exactly sure if the writer was equating rape with a ‘lifestyle choice’ although he probably wasn’t since he threw in that ever-useful term ‘consenting adults.’ Nonetheless, this does give you some idea as to how the French look at Americans.
They think we’re prudes. And this is making it difficult for some of them (but thankfully, not all) to believe that DSK actually forced a maid to perform oral sex on him in a $3,000.00 a night hotel room.
They probably also think that the Governator’s secret love child is absolutely no reason for Kennedy niece Maria to get all huffy and leave him. After all, Mitterrand had one on the side too, and his wife had no problem with the kid.
Yes, DSK may very well be innocent. But that’s not the point.
The French have eleven commandments, the last one being “If Thee Covet They Neighbor’s Wife, Keep Thy Mouth Shut.”
They might have Chanel and Dior. But I’m glad to be from a country where shame is still in fashion.