6/11/11 12:38 am - Sex Scandals: French vs. American
It's funny how the two scandals that are currently rocking the United States and France are showcasing the worst about how they're treated in both countries. The DSK scandal shows how far the respect for the privacy of French politicians goes: even multiple rape allegations get hushed up. The case of a Member of Parliament/mayor of a medium town, who has been convicted of sexual harassment (he appealed and lost several times) and is still in office has come to light (before the DSK scandal this was never mentioned in the newspapers), and a minister has had to resign because he's currently being sued for sexual harassment. I hope that it's not just a fad, and that the media will figure out that they should report on sexual offenders who are in office instead of considering it part of their private life. I hope that the DSK scandal is a permanent wake-up call for French politics, and that politicians and other powerful people will learn that assault and harassment are bad career moves.
At the same time (and, funnily enough, in the same city), the Weiner scandal shows the worst about the way Americans handle sex scandals. I like to joke that, in the United States, a sex scandal goes something like this:
* Governor gets arrested while driving to his mistress's house.
* Everyone freaks out and assures you that it's not because they care about the Governor's sex life (they swear they really, really don't), but because he broke the speed limit, and he's the one who signed it into law, and how does he want anyone to respect the law if he thinks he's above it and how are they going to explain that to their children?
* Governor resigns.
There are numerous sex scandals that more or less follow this scenario: Monicagate, Eliot Spizer's scandal, the Larry Craig scandal, the David Vitter scandal, to name a few. Yet in the Weiner scandal (and even the Schwarzenegger scandal), there was not even any law-breaking involved: Congressman Weiner may or may not have tweeted a picture of himself in his underwear for half a second. And yet, the world is ending and people are proclaiming it's the end of his career. By contrast, a few years ago, then-President Chirac was photographed at Fort Brégançon (a French vacationing spot for the President, i.e. government property) by paparazzi in full-frontal nudity. These picture were never, ever shown in the French media, and if they were mentioned, it was only with disgust at the British tabloids, who gleefully printed them (they probably wouldn't have been so quick to publish if it had been Queen Elizabeth II).
I think, in the end, it comes down to the standards to which politicians are held: in the U.S., they're held to extremely high standards, and when they make a small misstep, they're shot down fast. In France, on the other hand, everyone thinks that politicians are corrupt, lazy and stupid bastards, and people barely bat an eyelid if a politician is found out to be a serial killer who is BFFs with a bunch of bloodthirsty dictators (most of the time, they even get away with it). A show like The West Wing would be unthinkable in France and maybe even the rest of Western Europe: the English gave us The Thick of It and Yes, Minister, and neither are odes to governmental competence. I guess it all comes from the fact that the United States got the closest thing you can get to a clean slate when they decided to build their country and their political system, so they were hopeful in their political system and in the capacities their leaders. The foundations of most European democracies, however, are absolute monarchies and we've had totalitarian dictatorships either at home or in neighbouring countries until not so long ago. As a result, we've seen politics at their worst and we prefer to expect the worst so we're not disappointed.
I definitely think it's better to have high standards for politicians: at least the country gets run with a semblance of efficiency when its leaders know that citizens are watching, taking notes and grading their performance. But if you forget that you're dealing with humans, not angels, you risk not only to lose good people over their humanity, but also to discourage diversity by only allowing cookie-cutter clean people to be successful (no single, single parent, gay or queer people). Blithely letting violent predators into positions of power is wrong, but so is submitting people to 24/7 moral (and sexual) harassment under the pretext that you're holding politicians to a higher standard. It would be nice if both countries realised how extreme they are in how they deal with their leaders' private lives instead of constantly pointing to the other country's extreme behaviour.