DSK charge highlights French media's silence over sex
France traditionally indulges the sexual peccadillos of its leaders, but Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest marks the first time the electorate's tolerance has been tested by a rape charge.
The IMF leader plans to plead not guilty to charges he sexually assaulted and tried to rape a chambermaid, but the allegations surfaced in the United States, where top politicians do not enjoy the protection of privacy laws.
The man known as "DSK" was seen as the frontrunner in next year's presidential election without even having declared himself a candidate, and the sight of such a heavyweight in police handcuffs has astonished France.
It has also ruffled the veil of secrecy that separates the French voting public from the after-hours antics of the Parisian political elite.
Of course, if rape is proven, the charges against DSK are much more serious than those of simple infidelity that are invariably recounted -- often with a certain sympathy -- about French politicians many years after the fact.
But the news brought back to the surface previous allegations against him, allegations that in a less forgiving political environment would have brought his soaring career to a halt before the weekend's Shakespearian drama.
Instead, he lived protected by the media and political omerta that has shielded many French leaders -- including recent heads of state.
Jacques Chirac's active and varied sex life never appeared in the popular prints during his long public career which culminated in his tenure as president between 1995 and 2007, despite constant rumours.
"He had great success. Handsome man, with a winning way, fun. The girls ran after him," Chirac's wife Bernadette revealed to an interviewer in 2001, without bitterness. The couple are still together.
Chirac's immediate predecessor Francois Mitterrand was even more successful in keeping his private life private. His illegitimate daughter Mazarine remained a secret for the first 20 years of her life and his entire presidency.
That Mitterrand had maintained two households did not offend the French public, although questions were asked over his use of public money to house Mazarine, and over his tapping journalists' phones to protect his secrets.
In previous centuries the culture of secrecy surrounding the presidential bedchamber sometimes lasted a lifetime.
In 1899, when president Felix Faure died, allegedly in flagrante delicto, the Journal du Peuple newspaper ascribed his death to having "sacrificed too much of himself to Venus", the Roman goddess of love.
Not yet president -- and now apparently never to be so -- Strauss-Kahn has nevertheless also benefited over the years from the French press's reluctance to pursue tales of high-level debauchery that would delight British editors.
Before DSK left for Washington to take up the IMF job, the journalist Jean Quatremer warned on his blog for the daily Liberation that the veteran French official's behaviour would not be acceptable in the United States.
True to form, Strauss-Kahn was rapidly involved in a scandal involving an affair with a subordinate, which was condemned in Washington as "inappropriate" but in France only added to his legend as a "great seducer."
Quatremer's prescient sally had been condemned by many of his colleagues as an unacceptable attack on the politician's private life, but following Strauss-Kahn's arrest the reporter declared himself vindicated.
"The media and the politicians have known about DSK's irrepressible sexual appetite, and his to say the least 'inappropriate' behaviour towards women, for a long time," he wrote.
And Quatremer was not the only one to foresee DSK's fall from grace. Just last month, the man himself told Liberation journalists that sex could prove his downfall, saying: "Yes, I like women. So what?"
© 2011 AFP