The French code of silence

May 20, 2011

As Dominique Strauss-Kahn,
former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, tries to find a nicer place to stay than
Riker's Island, the French media are busy unraveling the shock bite that came
with an accusation of illegal imprisonment and attempted rape of a hotel maid.

It is the alleged violence of
the incident that has shaken the French. But it has also led some French
journalists to question what they admit was a protection of this government
leader's extramarital affairs. "We journalists haven't done our job properly," says Pierre Haski, a political commentator and
co-founder of Rue89. "We felt that we were
superior to the Americans and the British by upholding the principle of
protecting private life . . . we need to define our role in a more aggressive
way--and say that not everything private is private."

In the U.S., the media is
hardly shy about sharing the adventures and misadventures of its governmental
leaders. While the sexual habits of John F. Kennedy were covered up for him by
his retinue of loyal staffers and adoring reporters, it seems that every leader
and potential leader since then is scrutinized for any misstep, especially a
sexual one.

Meanwhile, American journalists
trip over each other in an effort to be first to report a transgression, and
they challenge boundaries of privacy in order to add a government leader to our
hall of infamy: John Edwards, Mark Sanford, etc., etc. (excluding Arnold the
marriage terminator, who managed to evade journalists!).

If the French are questioning
Strauss-Kahn's fitness to govern, perhaps they will further cement what Chantal
Delsol says in the May 14 issue of Le
Figaro: 
the majority of the French do not subscribe to the cultural
myth that Americans have attributed to them--the belief that one's personal
life can be kept separate from one's public life. Most believe the opposite:
private behavior directly affects one's behavior in the public domain.

If the French media decided to
lift its code of silence and report on leaders' private lives--including
incidents of promiscuity--would France discover or shape better leaders?

And on the other side of the
Atlantic...does the U.S. have leaders of higher moral fiber because we watch
them so closely and report on them so boldly? Or are we, with or without the
camera on zoom, likely to continue to elect leaders who disappoint in private
as well as in public life?