This past Sunday's arrest in New York of IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn has sent shock waves throughout France -- but not for the reasons most Americans would expect. Strauss-Kahn, repeatedly voted France's most popular politician, was considered the most serious contender to oust current French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, in next year's elections.
So the shock that many Frenchmen felt at the news was not that such a high-profile politician was involved in a sex scandal; it was either shock and dismay on the part of Socialists that their man would no longer be in the running to defeat the increasingly unpopular Sarkozy, or shock on a broader scale that the career of any French politician would implode because of a sex scandal and not a financial one.
Here is where the contrast between American and French mores can be seen at its sharpest: Newt Gingrich's candidacy is being called into question by some because of the fact that he has been divorced twice and had, shall we say, messy relationships with women. In France, on the other hand, it is practically a tradition that presidents and other leading politicians carry on extra-marital affairs, or at least be allowed the prerogative of open admiration of the opposite sex, unencumbered by a critical public eye. The fact is, the French are adamant about the right to privacy, and almost as adamant about the fact that it's simply not our business what goes on in the presidential bedroom (or other bedrooms of his choosing). By contrast, money and its poisonous tentacles are much more frequently the subject of scandal and demise chez les Français. What makes the Strauss-Kahn affair so salient is that a) this time it's criminal, b) it happened on American soil, where such a scandal is, well, all the more scandalous, and c) the French feel humiliated in the eyes of the world.
Before you say it serves them right, my dear American reader, you might ask yourself whether we are susceptible to similar incongruities. No culture is immune.