x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A bizarre double standard as France agonises over DSK

France, often considered the birthplace of the notion of human rights, has inexplicably switched the roles of apparent victim and apparent aggressor in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair.

Among many messages sent to me about Dominique Strauss-Kahn was one from Claude Ribbe, a historian who caused uproar in France with a book holding Napoleon responsible, as a "role model for Hitler", for the mass slaughter of Caribbean slaves.

Once again, there was no mincing of words: a "rich, powerful, famous man, bloated with arrogance and vanity" had been accused of raping a Muslim African immigrant of unblemished character striving to make ends meet in New York.

This was hard-hitting enough, and was naturally written before defence lawyers dropped dark hints about having evidence that could "gravely undermine" the woman's credibility. But stronger stuff was to come.

Because Mr Strauss-Kahn had his eyes on the French presidency and was the Socialist Party's favourite for the 2012 elections, Ribbe argued, a chunk of France's establishment had rushed to his support, exposing its "racism, sexism, Islamophobia and total disregard for the most humble". The accused had become the victim while the woman was made to seem guilty as part of a plot to bring down Mr Strauss-Kahn.

But the two words that shocked me most among those chosen by Ribbe, a tireless campaigner for racial equality, appeared in the title of the support committee he was inviting me to join: the first and last names of the woman concerned.

Now it is the practice in the UK jurisdiction with which I am most familiar, but also in the UAE, United States and indeed in France, to protect the identity of a person considered the victim of rape or other sexual offences. When, rarely, a British rape victim emerges from anonymity it is because she has chosen to do so, often in return for media payment.

Ribbe argued that he did no more than repeat what had become common knowledge in France since the country's media learnt the identity of Mr Strauss-Kahn's alleged victim. News magazines and websites, newspapers - from the respectable, Le Figaro and Le Monde, to the brash, France-Soir - and even state-owned radio have blithely referred to her by name. Some reports have identified her teenage daughter and published her address, down to the number of the flat where she lives in the Bronx; photographs have also been published, although there is doubt over their authenticity.

And yet in these same media outlets, we had previously seen coverage of the arrest of Mr Strauss-Kahn suggesting the US authorities' systematic and unacceptable humiliation of a man who had not been convicted of an offence.

For many years, I have believed the French media to be somewhat duller than the press of other countries, but also a lot more decent. I recall lecturing journalism students in Paris and noting their disapproval of what they saw as scurrilous Anglo-Saxon ways.

But it seems a serious lapse from that decency to expose the New York chambermaid to public gaze unless and until it can be shown that she is a fraud who was, as the French conspiracy theorists fondly imagine, party to a plot to deprive France of a sound presidential contender.

Indeed, the hypocrisy is all the more staggering because the same French media acted in such a timid manner in the face of growing whispers about the way Mr Strauss-Kahn was said to have treated other women. Even when a chapter of Sexus Politicus, a book by Christophe Dubois and Christophe Deloire, mentioned the nature of his womanising, no one felt interested or bold enough to pursue it.

But that was 2006. Since the arrest, of course, it has been as if French editors had suddenly been overcome by collective conversion. One or two commentators have said a freer, more challenging style will be an inevitable consequence of the affair. Yet there is a strong culture of silence to shift, let alone the legal obstacles placed in the way of open journalism.

Looking around for justification of the disclosure of the complainant's name, I came across this, from Eric Leser, co-founder of the news website slate.fr: "We have done this just [to stop] the conspiracy theory in France about this case and to stop the false accusation against the victim that she's doing [this] for money or she's a prostitute and things like that. The story that we have published is proving that all of [these] theories are false. That's our main reason."

This was described on the Times of India website, where it was reported, as a "bizarre defence". Without wishing to question Leser's sincerity, it is difficult to disagree.

Voices, to be fair, have been raised in favour of both the tradition of respecting individual privacy, which many would applaud, and the protection of supposed victims.

Francois Dufour is one of France's most successful editors, running daily newspapers for children. He was in court for Mr Strauss-Kahn's first hearing. His young readers have been given accounts of the case, but not the woman's identity. And although Dufour has published a book entitled Are French Journalists So Bad?, answering his own question in the affirmative, he is among those who feel it is no part of the media's function to intrude on private lives without strong public interest.

On the naming of victims, he is clear: his company Play Bac observes a firm rule of non-identification; it is, he affirms, a matter of "principle and ethical stance".

What a shame more editors in the country that prides itself as the birthplace of human rights did not see the overwhelming case for upholding that principle and ethical stance.


Colin Randall is the former executive editor of The National and writes regularly from France