PARIS and NEW YORK -- One of the most important men in the world, Dominique Strauss-Kahn of France, was on his way to meet with prime ministers and finance ministers from around the world on May 14 when he was pulled off an Air France flight to Paris by New York cops and treated exactly the same way any alleged felon is around New York -- that is, badly. The next morning he was on most every television screen in the world, silent, unshaven and handcuffed.
That is standard New York Police Department procedure, seen everywhere because the State of New York allows television cameras in courtrooms. In France, it is against the law to show the faces of arrested suspects and to put them in handcuffs because all that is seen a presumption of guilt.
But on May 15, the former finance minister of the country, a Socialist expected to be the next president of France, was seen at the dock treated as a common criminal. The charge: He assaulted and tried to rape a chambermaid at his $3,000-a-night suite (he paid only $520) at the Sofitel Hotel near Times Square.
The French were beyond surprised, beyond astonishment. How could this happen? In Paris, almost certainly a man of Strauss-Kahn's stature would never be arrested, never see his name in the newspapers, never be displayed for 26 minutes in a criminal court.
Big news in the U.S.A. Gossip in France. The French know about such things, of course. There is still the sense of the "droit de seigneur." Parisians generally assumed Strauss-Kahn did what they said he did, or he was the victim of a setup -- but so what? New York laws are ridiculous, they think, and New York cops are brutes.
It was not that Strauss-Kahn's sexual aggression was a mystery in France, or certainly in the better salons. Everyone knows he was sort of a nut, but he was a talented public servant whose wife, Anne Sinclair, was the richest and most powerful television anchorwoman in the country. There were more than enough stories about his advances and attacks on women who worked for him.
No matter the gossip or proof about male predation, the French press does not report it. It's kind of rude to intrude in the private lives of the high and mighty. In fact, it was Strauss-Kahn, before the New York attack, who brought the subject up in an interview with the French left-wing newspaper Liberation. Reporters and editors were talking about his very good chances to defeat President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election, when he said there were three hurdles in his way: women, money and Jewishness.
Women may have been the least of it. Envy is part of the French character; they do not revere rich people in quite the way we do. And anti-Semitism is something the French will always have with them. It is said that Sinclair's devotion and drive have to do with the fact that she, too, is Jewish and has been known to complain that the the last Jewish prime minister of France was Leon Blum in the 1930s. Sinclair was born in the United States, where her parents were sent for safety in World War II. The family name, Schwartz, was changed to "Sinclair," which was her father's nom de guerre in the French Resistance.
The French and American television coverage of this mess is not going to elevate either of two proud cultures. The Americans, I suspect, are going all the way to try to keep Strauss-Kahn behind bars -- that's the way we are. Befuddled French commentators kept referring to "Anglo-Saxon mores." If the charges are true, the man committed a series of crimes. But there will be long-term resentment in France, some new excuse for anti-Americanism, because Frenchmen simply don't believe that uncommon criminals should be the same as common crooks. Pas egalite!