Anyone who travelled in Europe in the waning years of the Clinton presidency can recall the general incredulity on the other side of the pond about the puritanical American obsession with sex. The very idea that we would impeach our president because he lied about sex (albeit, under oath) astonished Europeans, none more so than the sophisticated French. Everyone knew their leaders had girlfriends on the side, but no one professed to care about it much—not even political wives.
But the arrest yesterday of International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of rape has la belle France’s political class answering some difficult questions. After all, Strauss-Kahn is not just another European Union bureaucrat. Until the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit (the real thing, not Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay) pulled him out of the first class section of an Air France jet moments before it was about to take off, Strauss-Kahn was the French Socialist Party’s leading contender for next year’s presidential election. Can you imagine the guffaws that would be echoing around Europe if this happened to any of the leading Republican presidential candidates? Helas, Barack Obama will not be as lucky as Nicholas Sarkozy.
Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty. But the specific questions about this case aside, the really important issue here is how a person who was, according to today’s New York Times, well known to be a sexual predator with a history of attempted rape, allowed to rise in French politics without anyone’s blowing the whistle. It turns out all that French sophistication about sex was nothing more than the old boy network protecting its own, providing cover to a rapist while expressing disgust for puritanical Americans.
A dozen years ago, highbrow Europeans called upon Americans to do some soul-searching about the way they had let the search for Bill Clinton’s indiscretions convulse the political system. But flawed and as hypocritical as that process was (yes, I’m talking about you, Newt Gingrich), I would far rather live in a country that takes illicit sex as seriously as the United States than in one where a man like Dominique Strauss-Kahn can be considered presidential timber—at least, that is, until he discovered that there are things that you can get away with in France that you have to answer for in the puritanical States.