Suspect’s treatment stuns French

Sex charges against former IMF chief show differences of U.S. justice system

PARIS — The trans-Atlantic gap separating the U.S. and French justice systems and moral codes is as wide as the ocean itself - appalling a nation witnessing the unraveling fortunes of a favorite son, jailed former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Some of the charges leveled against Mr. Strauss-Kahn in the alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York do not exist in France.

And if the case were being heard in France, Mr. Strauss-Kahn might risk three to five years in prison instead of scores in the United States, a leading expert says.

Some in the United States, meanwhile, have expressed surprise that French media have identified the alleged victim by name - nearly unthinkable in U.S. journalistic circles, which avoid publishing a victim’s name in suspected sex crimes.

The photos of a potential French president - handcuffed, stooped, unshaven, tieless and whisked away to court before photographers - knocked the breath out of the French public.

The initial response was a collective “that would not happen here.”

Not in a country whose laws protect even a petty thief from flashing cameras in a public space and televised court hearings like the one broadcast last Monday from Manhattan Criminal Court. Not in a country whose traditions have long shielded the philandering of the powerful, at the risk of failing to uncover travesties of the law.

So different are French laws and mores, it is conceivable that Mr. Strauss-Kahn - guilty or not - failed to grasp the speed by which American justice runs its course, the weight given to alleged sex offenses and the egalitarian premise on which the U.S. judicial system is based until he sat in the infamous Rikers Island prison.

Despite the weight of the charges, it is likely, experts say, that had the alleged hotel scene taken place in Paris, Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s dignity would have remained intact.

In France, unlike the U.S., the judicial process takes place largely behind closed doors, and the political powers-that-be hold sway over prosecutors. It is also a country where for centuries, infidelities were a royal ritual and bedroom secrets known to all were never more than court chatter.

That unwritten bedroom code of silence is still largely respected, although the practice is bit by bit giving way to a demand for more public accountability.

“The French accept many more moral transgressions of their president, of their political class, of their elite. There is something … a bit aristocratic” in French moral and legal culture, said Antoine Garapon, a magistrate and author of the book “To Judge in America and in France.”

“The American culture is more democratic. You can head the IMF and be a citizen like others,” he told the Associated Press.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski, another Frenchman, gained the status in France of a hounded hero when he was pursued by U.S. justice authorities around the world for jumping bail decades ago on a sex-crimes charge.

Like Polanski, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has garnered more than a measure of sympathy in France, not just from fellow Socialists who counted on him to challenge conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s election, but as an alleged victim humiliated by the U.S. justice system.

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