Let’s face it: Americans have an insatiable appetite for political sex scandals. The affairs of men like Larry Craig, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner have become a national pastime. The moment revelations emerge of extramarital extracurricular activities, we engage in water-cooler debates over the gravity of their sins, the pathos of their cover-ups, and the tribulations of their steadfast wives.
And we watch with delight as colleagues and rivals throw them under the bus in the interest of preserving party dignity.
In the 1990s, the Jennifer Flowers affair kept us entertained for both terms of Bill Clinton's presidency. Taxpayers funded a multi-million dollar special investigator who routinely dug up juicy tidbits to keep the story fresh. Then in 1998 — as Al Qaeda secretly began plotting the 9/11 attacks — Clinton’s libidinous episode climaxed with Monica Lewinski, which morphed from media obsession into a best-selling book (the Starr Report) chronicling the blow-by-blow recollections of sex with the commander-in-chief. The matter nearly ended Clinton’s term, and certainly helped usher George W. Bush into the Oval Office. But hey, that's a small price to pay for years of intrigue.
The French like our movies and music. So why can’t they just revel in the human drama of a political sex scandal?
After a month and a half of sordid headlines about politician Dominique Strauss Kahn, politicians in Paris are disgusted. They want to vomit. And they're saying so. On TV.
Especially now that Tristane Banon, a journalist and writer, has added a new dimension to Strauss-Kahn's troubles.
As we learned over the long weekend, Banon has decided to file a complaint against the former French presidential front-runner. That comes just as prosecutors revealed that the case against him in New York — in which a chambermaid accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault — was collapsing.
Banon alleges that the politician attacked her in 2002, in an empty apartment where they had met for an interview. She says the incident lasted some 30 minutes, and she had to kick him violently with her boots to escape.
Strauss-Kahn has called the event "imaginary" and has filed a counter-suit for defamation.
The case has all the trappings of a media sensation. We’ve already met Strauss-Kahn — he's rich, powerful and brilliant, a world class economist, negotiator and diplomat. And he has a reputation as a celebrated "seducteur."
For her part, Banon is young, privileged and intelligent. Physically, she's striking, in that natural, alluringly-disheveled Parisian style. She grew up in a posh suburb of Paris, but felt neglected by her parents who were busy pursuing their careers. Her father was a successful businessman and former economic adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat; her mother is an official in the Socialist party — the same party that Strauss-Kahn belongs to.
Thickening the plot, the familial ties don't stop there: Strauss-Kahn's second wife is Banon's godmother. His daughter is a close friend, according to a profile in the Telegraph. There's also a literary element to the yarn: Banon writes intimate, emotionally-charged fiction with titles like "I Forgot to Kill Her" and "Black Delirium." A recently-published biography of Strauss-Kahn also addresses Banon’s accusations.
Banon’s accusations against Strauss-Kahn, in other words, would be regarded in the U.S. or the U.K. as a tabloid manna: a richly layered tale of elite sleaze, a lavish high-end laundry airing.
Not according to the French. Even presidential candidates — Strauss-Kahn’s rivals — are fed up with the story. Rather than basking in their opponent’s tribulations, they appear unanimously outraged that the scandal has become such a prevalent topic of public discussion, according to a series of video clips from TV news programs.
“This whole business nauseates me. I would prefer that we stop,” Christine Boutin, a presidential candidate from the Christian Democratic told iTele, in a tremulous voice that betrays her disgust.
Manuel Valls — a rival of Strauss-Kahn’s for the socialist party’s presidential nomination — took that sentiment a step further. “I don’t want to comment any more on this torrent of mud — permit me to say, this torrent of shit — that has invaded the French political life,” he hissed on RTL Television. And who does he blame for the torrent? “Those who think that through this they can either sell newspapers or derive personal benefit.”
On France Info, Jean Marc Ayrault, president of the Socialists in France’s National Assembly, mocked the media’s habit of labeling the Banon complaint as “season two” of the Strauss-Kahn affair. “It’s not season one, season two, or season three. It’s become painful. It’s become disgusting even, to hear all this, especially at a time when France is confronted by so many problems.”
“I have no opinion about the DSK affair. Like many French, I’m tired of it,” added Francois Bayon, president of the Movement Democrate, on LCI. “It’s nauseating.”
Even Jean-Francois Cope, the secretary general of President Sarkozy’s party — the group that has the most to lose from a possible Strauss-Kahn rehabilitation — resisted the temptation to exploit the scandal for political advantage. On France 2, he noted that Strauss-Kahn has the right to a presumption of innocence.
From American commentators, the usual explanation for this Gallic reserve is that the French are permissive, and tolerant of men's foiables. We hear that in France, the male libido is celebrated. This is a country, after all, where women appear topless on mainstream television.
But judging from the visceral repulsion with which these politicians express their views on the current matter, another explanation emerges: having been sheltered from a regular diet of public sex scandals, these leaders do not yet appear jaded the way Americans do. On the contrary, perhaps they are more sensitive to the notion that real people are suffering.
If Tristane Banon is lying, then a powerful man’s life and reputation are being trashed for no reason. French voters could be denied a popular and talented leader who might be able to address their formidable national challenges.
However, if Banon is telling the truth, then a precious young life has been shattered by the alleged attack. Nine years later, she says “I remain traumatized. I’ve never had normal relations with men. I’m always afraid,” according to an interview in L’Express Magazine. “Strauss-Kahn thought he could do whatever he wanted with my body without asking my opinion. Since then, the men who’ve loved me have said, ‘I get the impression that you are detached from your body.’”
So where’s the entertainment value in that?
Follow the writer on Twitter @DavidCaseReport.