June 05, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the politics of rape


A FEW MONTHS AGO, I was outraged by the French reaction to the Roman Polanski case. I am similarly outraged with the French reaction to Dominique Strauss-Kahn or DSK. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the powerful International Monetary Fund, is accused of sexually assaulting a housekeeping staff in the posh Sofitel hotel in Manhattan. The charges against DSK are extremely serious and if convicted he could face up to 25 years in prison. He has maintained his innocence and a recent poll indicates that 57% of the French public believe he has been framed. What further complicates this story is the fact that a few months ago DSK  allegedly claimed that since he is running for French presidency, there will be attempts to discredit him. More specifically, he claimed that anyone could be paid 500,000 Euros to falsely accuse him of rape in a parking lot. He also said the fact that he is Jewish might work against him, against the backdrop of covert and sometimes overt anti-Semitism in Europe.

Without getting into the finer details of the case, newspaper reports seem to suggest that the victim is of West African origin, probably from Guinea, who was forced to flee her country under difficult circumstances. She is a single mother of a 15-year-old girl and had been working in Sofitel for the past two years. She was attacked by DSK when she went to clean his room on Saturday. She tried to fight him and run away but was dragged back from the hallway, held back against her will and assaulted multiple times. She called her brother up within an hour of being attacked who advised her to report it to the police. The New York Special Victims Unit, famous for handling sex crimes apprehended DSK on a flight to Germany. DSK was refused bail because the judge decided that he presented a significant flight risk and has been remanded to custody.

The IMF meanwhile has continued with its work including funding the bail-outs of Portugal and Greece. It should be noted that there has been no pressure from within IMF on DSK (yet) to resign from his position as the chief. His deputy has stepped in for him and the organization seems to be behaving as if it is business as usual. The day after the newspapers reported his alleged crime, a young French journalist came forward saying that he had similarly tried to rape her in 2007 but she was dissuaded from reporting this by her mother, a prominent French politician of the same party as DSK. Psychologists agree that men who engage in sexually predatory behaviour are unlikely to stop with a single victim. Also given DSK’s age (he is 62) it is highly unlikely that if indeed he is guilty, this is his first crime. Sexual harassment and rape is highly under-reported in the west; for eg in the UK, only 7% of rape cases are convicted.

I can’t help but think that this case perfectly symbolises Europe and by extension IMF’s relationship with the developing countries given that the alleged perpetrator of this crime is firstly, the head of a very powerful financial organization, a European politician/economist/intellectual, while the victim is a woman, of African origin, a single mother and a working class person. The accused is a very powerful man, not just because he is the head of the IMF but because he is highly regarded in his own country, to the extent that he planned to contest for the French Presidency next year. The only person who matters in France who has taken a stand against DSK is the leader of the far-right party, National Front Marine Le Pen. However she is a woman who is known for her extreme French nationalism, opposition to the veil and anti-immigrant and anti-immigration sentiments.

The heady mix of domestic politics, the sexual nature of the crime and DSK’s reputation as a ‘serial seducer’ in France and the flexibility of French morals when it comes to crimes committed by ‘intellectuals’ will make it difficult for the victim to get justice. In France, DSK is being seen as a victim of the punitive and piratical American justice system and I am confident that his lawyers will leave no stone unturned to establish that the act was consensual or in failing that, tarnish the victim’s reputation to bias the jury. Should DSK be treated any worse or better because of his position? I think not. If his crime were to be proved, he should receive the same treatment as any other rapist. Will this happen? Only time can tell.

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