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As New York prosecutors eat crow, French citizens vent over sloppy American justice.
BOSTON — It's a rough day for the American justice system’s credibility. The inevitable cross-Atlantic outrage over the latest revelations in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has swept like a tsunami across France. Conspiracy theories are rife. It’s safe to say that anger, fury and indignation have further diminished France’s opinion of the U.S.
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First, let’s review the facts as the French see them: Only seven weeks ago, Strauss-Kahn languished in a Rikers Island cell on suicide watch, his laces removed from his shoes. The former IMF chief, a front-runner for France's 2012 presidential elections, appeared hopelessly disgraced, charged with sexual assault. American officials claimed his accuser was flawless. New York law enforcement officials assured the public that they had questioned her diligently, and called her "highly credible.” Her lawyer, Kenneth P. Thompson, described her as a quiet, modest Muslim, a law-abiding immigrant from Guinea, and a single mother struggling to take care of a teenage daughter.
The abrupt and embarrassing U-turn came this Friday morning. The NY Times reported that the case is "on the verge of collapse." Despite "unambiguous [forensic] evidence of a sexual encounter" between Strauss-Kahn and the woman, prosecutors no longer believe much of the accuser's testimony, the Times said. "Since her initial allegation on May 14, the accuser has repeatedly lied," according to enforcement officials cited. The paper added that the woman had received cash deposits worth $100,000 in her bank account in the past two years, some of which came from a man incarcerated for possessing 400 pounds of marijuana. On May 14, the day of the alleged assault, the accuser and the convict had a phone conversation in which she discussed "possible benefits of pursuing the charges against Strauss-Kahn."
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In a court appearance on Friday, Strauss-Kahn’s harsh bail terms were eliminated. The judge released him on his own recognizance, ordering the return of the $6 million he had posted to the court for bail. But the judge also demanded that Strauss-Kahn remain in the U.S., and declared that the case had not been closed.
Key to remember is that, while an unreliable witness may lead to an acquittal, it does not mean that a crime wasn’t committed — or that one was, for that matter. But given all that Strauss-Kahn has lost — his job, his reputation, his status as putative future savior of the French economy — anything short of a convincing conviction will be a major defeat for the New York attorney general’s office.
In France, the revelations re-kindled an already red-hot level of outrage. Since the start of the incident people have expressed shock that the testimony of a hotel maid could so quickly bring down such a powerful and accomplished man. They were indignant that the Americans treated Strauss-Kahn like a convict — forcing him to endure the “perp-walk," and allowing journalists to photograph him in handcuffs — long before the trial began.
The Parisian media has offered blanket coverage of the affair, and especially these latest developments. For the most part, newspapers wasted no time in reclaiming the higher ground for France and its fallen politician.
By Friday evening Paris time, Le Monde’s website led with a banner headline declaring, “DSK’s regains his freedom, the plaintiff accused of having told an ‘erroneous story.’”
Hours after the revelations, the site had posted an article titled "The two faces of [accuser's name withheld by GlobalPost]" reviewing several “incoherent” details about her story. Illustrating the article was a photo of angry hotel maids shouting "shame on you" at Strauss-Kahn, a reminder of how quickly many New Yorkers had jumped to conclusions. The writer, Marion Van Renterghem, reported that while the alleged victim’s attorney said that she had no idea who Strauss-Kahn was until well after the incident, the Sofitel that employed her regularly posted photos in the maid’s lounge, to inform the staff of prominent guests staying on the VIP floor. The writer noted that the maid had requested to work the floor that weekend in the absence of a co-worker. These details support the common theory in France that Strauss-Kahn was set up, perhaps by political rivals.
The swift retreat by prosecutors garnered hundreds of comments on the Le Monde’s site, questioning whether the government of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy had played a role; speculating that the woman was gold-digging; ordering an investigation into a potential conspiracy; and demanding that New York pay reparations to the French politician.
“In the face of this collective hysteria, which makes me want to vomit, I no longer care to speak,” wrote one person. “This Guinean woman is guilty. Period. We’ve known that from the beginning. OJ Simpson was acquitted even while everyone in the U.S. was convinced he had killed his [former] wife.”
Another commenter wrote, “if no charges are retained against DSK, I doubt for an instant that [recently appointed IMF chief] Christine Lagarde will step down from her post to let him return! If that’s the case, the theory appears credible that DSK was ‘knocked down’ because the international financiers were displeased by his European political leanings.”
Some politicians interviewed by the French media offered a more measured response. Minister of Agriculture Bruno Le Maire told TV station Europe 1 that two lessons could be drawn from the matter. “The first, is that people speak too much and too quickly. The second is that the same people who denounced Dominique Strauss-Kahn are going to denounce the American justice system and the prosecutor. Meanwhile, the only truth that matters is that which the American justice system decides.”
Meanwhile in Manhattan, the New York Post appeared to be revising its approach to the matter. The right-leaning tabloid perhaps did more than anyone to infuriate the French, lambasting Strauss-Kahn with banner headlines calling him a “horny toad.” On Friday, the Post patted itself on the back, writing, "Questions about [the accuser’s] credibility were first revealed by The Post days after Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, including the fact that she lived in subsidized housing for AIDS patients, although she swore to investigators she was not infected."