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Scandal Detracts from Serious International Business

3Qs with Natalie Bormann, visiting professor of political science
May 23rd, 2011

Dominique Strauss-​​Kahn resigned last week as the head of the Inter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) amid alle­ga­tions of sexual assault in New York City — leading to larger ques­tions of how this will affect French pol­i­tics and finan­cial mat­ters across Europe. Natalie Bor­mann, a vis­iting assis­tant pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, assesses the impli­ca­tions of this sit­u­a­tion and the media cov­erage that followed.

What are the impli­ca­tions of these events for the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and the dynamic of the country’s polit­ical parties?

Dominique Strauss-​​Kahn was assumed to play a key role in the upcoming French elec­tion, and thus, this scandal could affect the elec­tion in many ways. The social­ists will clearly need to redesign their elec­tion strategy, as will Pres­i­dent Nicolas Sarkozy. The scandal also cer­tainly plays into the hands of the Front National, which has been run­ning on an ‘anti-​​elite’ plat­form. In a wider con­text, the scandal has shaken up France’s inter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion some­what. There has always been a tad of con­tempt — by some — with regard to France’s sup­posed over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in inter­na­tional institutions.

What impact will this scandal have on the IMF and the debt crisis in Europe?

There have been demands to appoint a non-​​European IMF chief, while others are quick to note the IMF’s chief is far less rel­e­vant than the insti­tu­tion itself. Regard­less of Strauss-Kahn’s suc­cessor, it is unlikely that there will be any major shift in the overall phi­los­ophy of the IMF.
In a way, the shift in atten­tion — away from the details of the Euro­pean debt crisis, involving Ire­land, Greece and Por­tugal, and toward the sex scandal — is dis­ap­pointing and even dan­gerous. The IMF’s move to bail out yet another EU debtor ought to be scru­ti­nized harshly: To begin with, the IMF appears to have moved toward becoming the extended finan­cial arm of the EU, and these bailouts come with aus­terity mea­sures that burden ordi­nary EU cit­i­zens. Por­tugal will deliver the price for its 78 bil­lion Euro package by way of enforcing strict public spending cuts, and such strategy con­tinues to be a point of con­tention in Greece.

What is the public’s response to this sit­u­a­tion in France, and has the media played a role this?

The media was quick to sit­uate the scandal within the con­tours of the sup­posed cul­tural dif­fer­ences between the United States and France on a number of levels. For instance, there is a focus on the ways in which the French were seem­ingly out­raged at the Amer­ican crim­inal jus­tice system, in par­tic­ular at show­casing Strauss-​​Kahn as already guilty. In sim­ilar fashion, the nature of the alleged charges was dis­cussed and made intel­li­gible through a dichotomized cul­tural lens: The puritan Amer­ican versus the per­mis­sive French, sug­gesting that this alleged sexual mis­be­havior is more common or more accepted in French society. This is, of course, not the case.

On a dif­ferent, yet, related note regarding the media: The affair has been a classic instance in which polit­ical bodies and activ­i­ties — the IMF, the French elec­tions — were per­son­al­ized to the detri­ment of their polit­ical con­texts and com­plex­i­ties. This is not to sug­gest that we can, or should, sep­a­rate the per­sonal from the polit­ical. How­ever, the media cov­erage of Strauss-​​Kahn and espe­cially the ‘perp walk’ photos may lead to a focus on per­son­ality rather than the bigger issues at stake.

- by Greg St. Martin


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