New York District Attorney (DA) Cyrus Vance’s decision to end the case resulted from his office’s judgment that in a case that came down to he-said-she-said, she wouldn’t be sufficiently persuasive before a jury. After having declared the complainant to be little short of the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary after Mr Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, the DA’s office had to backpedal when it turned out that she had a history of taking liberties with the truth.
As a nicety, this offers an interesting insight into both English common law, and our attitudes to sex crimes. On one hand, because the burden of proof in our legal system favours the defendant, all Mr Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers needed to do was pull an O.J., letting the jury wonder if the alleged victim of his offence was telling the whole truth. Evidently, a history of lies gave them enough ammunition to do just that.
But lies about what? None of the lies the complainant had been discovered telling in the past had anything to do with the case itself, on which her testimony seemed sound and, within the usual parameters of such cases, consistent. The worst lie was reportedly on her asylum application to the US. This is a testimony for which the incentive to be untruthful is so strong, a great many decent people would do it.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, Mr Strauss-Kahn has been known to be liberal with his own interpretations of the truth. After all, his original defence was reportedly that he hadn’t touched the complainant. Only when physical evidence that he had done just that emerged did his lawyers sing the new tune: that any activity had been consensual.
And here, it seems, we are still stuck with a double-standard. Back when former US President Bill Clinton was facing his own legal woes over sexual misdeeds, I heard otherwise intelligent men declaring loudly, “He’s just lying about sex, men do that, get over it!” Men lie about sex. But women, apparently, mustn’t. Or about anything, for that matter.
When it comes to victims of rape, we still harbour expectations that it is not enough for a woman to say “no”. Women of a certain ‘character’ seem to subtly lose the benefit of the doubt which men, cads though they may be, enjoy in spite of it. All a defence lawyer has to do is trash a woman, and his man walks free.
Still, though Mr Strauss-Kahn is at liberty to resume his ways, it would be a mistake to conclude he has not paid a price for his behaviour. The shock waves caused by his arrest still reverberate in France. Although his friends still want him to have a go at the French presidency, polls suggest that most French citizens do not. Whether they think him a criminal, they have seen a side to the man they would rather see no more.
The most profound result of this case in France has not been on Mr Strauss-Kahn. Most French voters, like most American voters, are willing to overlook the sexual peccadilloes of their leaders, however unsavoury they might find them as individuals. What shocked many French people was the response to Mr Strauss-Kahn’s arrest by his friends. Their outrage revealed antediluvian attitudes still prevalent among the old generation of men in France’s political class, who seemed appalled that anyone should bother about what a great man does to a lowly housekeeper.
France will not become as puritanical as the US. But it is unlikely to let the old boys’ club go back to the happy old days, when they could carry on with impunity behind a veil of voluntary ignorance.