Columns

A clash of cultures

DIANE ABBOTT

Sunday, May 22, 2011    

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ATTITUDES to acceptable social behaviour between men and women have changed decisively in a generation. And they vary markedly between different societies. The case of top French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn illustrates what can happen when differing social attitudes clash.

Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF today is more central to the political debate than it was when it was mainly intervening in the economies of countries like Jamaica, so Strauss-Kahn was a leading international figure. He was even seen as a contender for the presidency of France. But it all started to go wrong for him last week.

He was staying in a US$3,000-a-night suite of a top Manhattan hotel, the luxury Sofitel, on West 44th Street last weekend. At around 1:00 pm the maid came in. Like many cleaning staff in New York hotels she was an immigrant, in her case from Guinea in West Africa.

Most business hotels expect you to leave your accommodation by 11:00 am, so she might reasonably have expected that the suite would be empty. What happened next is disputed. But according to the maid, Strauss-Kahn was in the bathroom and came out stark naked. Instead of retreating to get a towel, he grabbed at her breasts. When she tried to escape he locked the door to the suite and chased her.

According to her, first he tried to rape her, and then he dragged her into the bathroom where he forced her to perform oral sex on him. He then left the hotel and boarded a plane destined for France.

But in a move, which must have astonished him, the New York police acted with extraordinary swiftness. They interviewed the maid and on the basis of her story, snatched him from the plane as it was due to take off and promptly arrested him.

The look of stunned disbelief on Strauss-Kahn's face in pictures taken since the arrest must partly reflect his incredulity that someone of his importance could be arrested on the word of an African maid.

Opinion in France has largely been on Strauss-Kahn's side. They are particularly outraged by the photographs of him in handcuffs. They think that the Americans are deliberately humiliating him because he is French. And they tend to downplay the seriousness of the charges. But information has come out which reveals that Strauss-Kahn is a womaniser.

A succession of actresses, journalists and work colleagues are now telling their stories. One woman described him as behaving like a "rutting chimpanzee". Others described him as rough and aggressive. His friends insist that he is merely a charming seducer, not a violent rapist. But it does not seem to occur to them that he may save the charm for white women of his own class.

It may be that the maid has completely invented her story. But if it is true, this whole episode could partly reflect a culture clash. It is possible to imagine that, for Strauss-Kahn, rough sex with a chambermaid was not necessarily a "big deal".

He could never have believed that American law enforcement officers could take a black maid's word over his. He may have assumed that his power and status protected him from any consequences. And he may have had good reason to believe this. The stories that are coming out now about his sexual misbehaviour have a common theme. The women involved did not want to make their experiences public because he was such an important figure in French society.

But in a globalised world, top business executives are only a plane journey away from societies that have a very different attitude to sexual misbehaviour than their own. Nor does the fact that you are a "big man" in your world guarantee you a deferential hearing somewhere else.

Apparently Strauss-Kahn was warned about this sexual misbehaviour before he was posted to Washington. He was further advised that America took a stern view of these matters. Maybe he should have listened.

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