July 11th, 2011
11:28 AM ET

Has Dominique Strauss-Kahn been treated fairly?

Fareed Zakaria: So, in light of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, we wanted to explore just how different our laws and morals in American and in Europe. To help answer that question and to talk about many other topics, a terrific panel from both sides of the pond.

Across the Atlantic, in Nice, France, is French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. Sitting with me but actually hailing from the United Kingdom is Columbia University's Simon Schama. And representing the Americas, I suppose, Bret Stephens is The Wall Street Journal's foreign affairs columnist, and Chrystia Freeland is global editor-at-large at Reuters.

Bernard-Henri Levy, I'm going to start with you because you have been a prominent participant in the whole affair DSK. There's a column in The New York Times by Joe Nocera in which he says - describing your writings on these issues, "To judge by his recent writings, Bernard-Henri Levy prefers to live in a country where elites are rarely held to account, where crimes against women are routinely excused with a wink and a nod, and where people without money or status are treated like the nonentities that the French moneyed class believe they are. I'd rather live here," he says.

You are of course in Nice, and happy to be there, but what do you say to this columnist?

Bernard-Henri Levy: What I tell him is, first of all, is that I love America. I'm a defender of America. I so often explain that anti-Americanism is a sort of form of fascism, and that I hate sometimes the way in which America is cartooned, and sometimes by itself.

The image of the justice which was given in the first days of this Strauss-Kahn affair was a cartoon image. It was not America. It was not the judicial system which de Tocqueville praised so highly and which he exhibited as the model for the whole world.

For somebody like me who likes America as much as France, it was heartbreaking, and when I said that, I did not defend my friend, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I defend the idea which I have of justice in general and of American justice in particular.

Fareed Zakaria: But, let me ask you, you - again Nocera says I don't see what Vance did wrong. The woman alleged rape. She had no criminal record. Her employer vouched for her. The quick decision to indict made a lot of sense for legal and practical reasons.

Then, as the victim's credibility crumbled, the district attorney didn't pretend that he still had a slam dunk. He acknowledged the problem.

Levy: What he did bad was to consider from the very first minute without having heard the word, the voice, of Dominique Strauss- Kahn, that he was a guilty one. What he did wrong was to offer him to the whole world as a sort of beast, as a sort of perv, as a sort of criminal by essence and substance.

The jail, the shame, the public humiliation, the leaks organized to the tabloid press, presenting the facts in a completely disordered way.

What he does now, which is to leave the two parties free and to fact check, to double cross the information, to try to understand what really happened in this Sofitel suite, this is right. And if there has been a crime, if there has been a rape or an attempt of rape, it is a big crime, and it will have to be punished.

Zakaria: Simon Schama, in his column at The Daily Beast, Bernard-Henri Levy says that this is like Robespierre. You wrote a book on the French Revolution, do you think that there's any parallel?

Simon Schama: I can understand Bernard's passion about that, but, as we know, the guillotine was the conclusion of that. That's not exactly what happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

What I wanted to say to Bernard and to the discussion is that, you know, much of what he says I share, but I think it boils down to this kind of very lurid relationship between the tabloid press and the nature of criminal prosecution. Spectacular criminal prosecution or criminal apprehension, potential criminal apprehension as a kind of public spectacle -

There is something in American public life which actually assumes it not to be problematic, actually, to make a show even before any guilt is necessarily proven.

Levy: You have this tendency, and also in France, and I was even more severe or as severe concerning France than America, you have this tendency to mix show and justice.

And when you saw the lawyer of the maid expressing himself, having a sort of a bad press conference on the stairs of the court and describing in such a graphic way the most intimate parts of the body of his client, this was not only graphic, it was pornographic.

Maybe Strauss-Kahn rapes, maybe we'll see - the attorney will say, but the lawyer this day committed also a sort of symbolic rape. You cannot speak of your client, when she's a woman, in such a rude way, coming again and again to the world to the parts of the body and so on. All this way of giving a theater show for all the press all over the world, this was really problematic.

Freeland: None of you have mentioned something - the thing that actually angered me the most about how Dominique Strauss-Kahn was treated, and actually mostly the media treatment, which is I think something quite characteristic of America and I hope that Europe doesn't import, which is the confusion of promiscuity with sexual assault. What I really didn't like was in the early stories about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, people talking about, well, he's had affairs.

I don't think that's relevant, and actually I think it's so important for women and feminists to take a very firm stand on saying a person's personal sexual ethics have no bearing whatsoever on wrongdoing and on criminal activity. And why this is so important is it used to be the case that we would say it wasn't possible for a woman to be raped or assaulted if she was loose, if she had affairs or slept around, and equally I think just because a man has affairs, which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was known to do, it doesn't mean we should assume he's more likely to rape someone.

Zakaria: But you think - you wrote in your column, you said, look, the guy's a sleaze and he probably did it.

Bret Stephens: No, I didn't say that.

Zakaria: What did you say?

Stephens: I said that's what I was inclined to think, and I reproached myself for having that thought because, look, we liked our news to -

Zakaria: But by saying he's probably a sleaze.

Stephens: He is probably a sleaze, and there's a lot of information to testify to that, which is not in dispute, including sleeping with chambermaids in New York City hotels and his affair for which he was reprimanded by the IMF, and a long trail of stories emerging from his past in France. But Chrystia is entirely right. Being a sleaze is not the same as being a criminal.

And our problem here, which is I think universal, not just an American one, is that we liked our news to have the quality of a parable. And here there was a parable - really, whatever your political persuasion happened to be, if you were a feminist of a certain point of view, it was, as Chrystia says, this is a guy who's a sort of a sexual rogue, hence he must be a rapist.

If you had a maybe a right of center persuasion, you didn't like Strauss-Kahn, you didn't like French socialists, you don't like the lending policies of the IMF, there was a sense of delight this guy had been pulled from his first-class Air France seat and sent to Rikers Island in the best American traditions.

So it all came together to convict the man before anyone - most of us, including myself, had asked some common-sense questions, not the least of which was does this really make sense for him to do? And were the details that were known to us merely from the very beginning of the trial, did they correspond to the idea that - that a sexual assault had actually taken place?

I think this happens in more than just the case of DSK. I think it's pervasive in the was we make news judgments about different stories. We mistake anecdote for data, and that's what we did here. There were anecdotes about DSK and we suggested that this led inescapably to a conclusion. We forget that stories in life and in history as well tend to be crooked.

Zakaria: We're going to leave the DSK business here, but with one footnote that we need to remember - rape charges are still pending against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

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Topics: Culture • Europe • GPS Show • Law • Sex • United States

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Roland Thau

    Bernard-Henri Levy may or may not be fluent in English. If he is, he disregards the history of the case and simple logic when saying "What he [the prosecutor] did bad was to consider from the very first minute without having heard the word, the voice, of Dominique Strauss- Kahn, that he was a guilty one." Mr. Strauss-Kahn quite properly invoked his constitutional (5th Amendment) right to remain silent following his arrest. Thus, it is he who chose to not convey his "word, voice" concerning whether he was guilty or not. Mr. Levy should thus fault Mr. Strauss-Kahn for his post-arrest silence if he wishes that the prosecutor had immediately known DSK's version of the Sofitel events.

    Mr. Levy laments that current American justice is no longer the American justice described by de Tocqueville, centuries ago. Thank goodness; we have evolved since those days: no more slavery, government-sanctioned racial discrimination in schools, public transportation, armed services, etc.. The rights and protections of defendants charged with crimes have been expanded since Mr. Levy's nostalgia-induced "good old Tocqueville" days.

    Lets not forget that Mr. Levy also mounted a vituperative attack on the US judicial system when arguing that Roman Polanski (who had been a fugitive from justice) was being abused.

    July 11, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • Mary T

      Very well said!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • S1N

      If you TRULY want some poetic justice, arrange for Polanski to be in Strauss-Kahn's home in France. Just dress DSK up like an underage girl. Problem solved.

      July 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Was it too much to expect higher ethics from someone holding such an important position as head of the IMF? Did he not have the reputation of the IMF to think about.
      Bernard Henri Levy was irate over the way his friend was treated, like a criminal before his guilt was even established. I saw once Michael Shakel, a cousin of Ethel Kennedy taken away in handcuffs by police. Unfortunately that's how the police in America works and NOT the justice. BHL must know that the days de Tocqueville was in America were quite different from the present. There was no police around, as the one we see today. The citizens sometimes joined force to protect themselves. Maybe BHL thought deviance is a social issue and shouldn’t be punished harshly. Yet in the days of de Tocqueville criminals in France were all deviants.

      July 15, 2011 at 10:36 am | Reply
  2. EricLr

    Just the fact that DSK was suddenly, and very publicly, arrested so soon after he pulled ahead in the polls ahead of pro-American Sarkozy and had begun openly criticizing the value of the dollar SHOULD have been reason enough for the press to be at least a little skeptical of the motivations behind his arrest. Instead they jumped whole-heartedly on the "Evil rich guy attacking the innocent poor maid" narrative. The result was that he was discredited, lost the IMF, lost his election chances, etc. The press basically played right into the hands of the CIA and Sarkozy, without so much as even the slightest bit of basic journalistic skepticism. And they're doing the exact same thing right now with Julian Assange, Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, and Moammar Gaddafi, all of whom have been pronounced rapists without the press even THINKING to ask if they MAY have been framed.

    July 12, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
    • Deborah

      Anything to keep the focus on the wrong people while the real torturers, rapists and murderers pretend to be heroes and saints. I'm disgusted at the sleazy treatment of DSK as well as some other things...

      July 13, 2011 at 3:19 am | Reply
  3. NRMD

    American laws very good, but american lawyers are utterly bad. With so many laws in this land, common sense has absolutely no place in American society. Therefore no one benefits in America, except the lawyers. No one can change that. No one will be treated fairly in america except lawyers. Rich robbing poor is illegal everywhere in the world except in America. But wait! somebody has to rob the rich too, that where lawyers come from.

    July 12, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • yuri pelham

      agree entirely

      July 12, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  4. NewMexicoMan

    Go to another country and be treated by their standards. Strauss Kahn has been treated fairly.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Jacques

      There are many countries where this man would have been treated more fairly. Most European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand all spring to mind. We americans have ourselves convinced that we have perfected everything and that clearly is not the case! Our justice system is more dysfunctional and over reactive than a great many.

      July 13, 2011 at 9:15 am | Reply

    It was a sad situation yes, but if Strauss-Kahn were not a powerful rich Frenchmen, but a middle class or poor American, he would have languished in prison, with no bond, for months. An average man would get newspaper articles claiming he is a rapist, but the press would not care to print anything to clear his name when the charges are dropped. Many district attorneys would bring the case to trial, even with serious credibility issues of a victim, and sing the jury praises about the "victim" which he doesn't even believe, only to secure a conviction. Strauss Kahn had a lot more supporters than the typical person falsely accused of crime.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Deborah

      Try YEARS.

      July 13, 2011 at 3:20 am | Reply
    • Lise, Costa Rica

      I liked very much your comment. And I agree. See mine here in the same direction, but traying to focus in this fenomenon of many people believing that everything is French is fancy, elegant & smart, including whatever DSK, could have done. I lived myself in France for several years, a country I like very much, but I try to be free of prejudices when judging facts.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  6. AnotherNewMexicoMan

    Mr. Levy's eloquence in defense of principle informs me that he has been born out of time: His great logical talents would have been right at home defending the honor of the Army in the Dreyfus case.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  7. Felix Howard

    Too bad he was falsely put under the media, I believe he was interested in the presidency in france, his opponents probably pulled this ugly trick so that he would not stand for elections but instead would have his life totally destroyed with his political career as well.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  8. Derp

    Welcome to the matriarchy, where a woman's word can ruin any man, no matter his innocence or wealth.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  9. Martin

    DSK made himself appear guilty when he resigned his position at the IMF. Request a leave-of-absence? Perhaps. Resign? Hell no! If you're innocent and deserve to beat the charge, you shouldn't chuck your career. His resignation, together with all the women that came out of the woodwork and alleged this and that made him seem guilty has hell. And he still may be... In any case he's a sleeze. If the French want that for their president, then "à chacun son gout."

    July 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  10. S1N

    I can sleep soundly at night while ridiculing Strauss-Kahn for one simple reason. He's from Paris.

    July 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  11. fudi786numberdi

    seriously american people are so dumb...kahn is going to sue your ass and america is already in debt, you guys can't pay him back.

    July 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Reply
  12. Scott

    Hang the Rich!

    July 13, 2011 at 4:00 am | Reply
  13. Jaime

    Watch the spelling and syntax. Look at the first paragraph, it says: "we wanted to explore just how different our laws and morals in American and in Europe" (isn't this missing an "are"?), and then it continues with: "To help answer that question and to talk about many other topics, a terrific panel from both sides of the pond." Should't this say something like "we have a terrific panel" etc?
    Perhaps "minor" errors? But a total turn-off on a top news organization's featured article. It makes CNN (and Fareed) look bad. Lack of attention to detail says a lot about a person.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:09 am | Reply
  14. Vijai

    Go back to your muslim roots Zakaria. Your opinions stink and besides you don't know how to write English.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
  15. Lise, Costa Rica

    Detaining DSK has been perceived by many (especially French socialists and French intellectuals) as a judiciary atrocity just he was the FMI former director, the charming brilliant & seducer guy, the image of the French "bon vivant" figure admired by a sort of snob bourgeoisie all around the world, . If it resulted in public spectacle it was just because he is famous and a potencial socialist candidate for president. Suspects of any kind are treated in that way in US. The difference is that they are not always famous. Should DSK be treated differently just because of his supposed charms & qualities. I don't think so.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Reply

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