Ambivalent World

It took the presidential election of Mr. Obama to patch the relationship between France and the United States, wounded since September 11 and the Iraq war.
It only took an ugly Saturday afternoon to damage the constructive last years.
Since the sudden arrest of the head of the IMF, the news on both sides of the Atlantic are filled with articles and opinions that reflect the cultural, judicial and social disparities anchored in the collective of the French and the Americans.
Since Saturday, the Atlantic Ocean seems to be more than just a vast body of water separating them.
Nobody knows for sure if the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK for the French, is guilty or innocent of sexual assault against a hotel housekeeper. After all he has not yet provided his side of the story but has already pleaded non-guilty.
The French are outraged, shocked, humiliated and shaken.
The collective French “we” is speaking since Saturday afternoon.
Regardless of political opinions, the French as one, condemns the American disregard for privacy, the American judicial system but agree on the non-said yet accepted fact that men will be men and that sexual misconduct is not such a big deal.
And because I was born in France and spent the thirty-first years of my life in my native country, I understand each of their points.
It doesn’t mean that I agree with them but I do understand why the French think that way.
First, it is true that the French are the champions of privacy. Gates, physical and virtual, guard the people of France. Google a French name and you won’t find much. Most French people live in safe anonymity although they love Facebook as much as the Americans do. Google maps has not been able to enter French neighborhoods. The French don’t put freedom of speech on a pedestal but cherish to the extreme their privacy.
Second, the French justice system is different from the American one. Although both countries agree that a man (or woman) is innocent before being proven guilty, in France nobody will be arrested before being proven guilty while in the United States you go to jail before being proven innocent. The French love CSI but only on screen. When it becomes real, they just can’t understand a system they call a justice a la Hollywood.
Third but not last, is the common French silent acceptance that, always because of the sacred privacy, men are somehow entitled to enjoy women in any way it pleases them.
One trip to France is enough to see that boys and men aren’t shy when it comes to watching girls and women and even commenting out loud about them. It is a cultural fact that shocks my teenage daughters when we visit my native land. I was similarly surprised when I moved to California and realized that American men weren’t so obnoxious.
It is in France that President Mitterrand lived a public life distinct from his private. He had a mistress and a child from the relationship. Both lived for many years in an apartment apart from the president’s official address. The French didn’t know although they paid for the expenses. But this is the only part that shocked them when they found out. They all agreed that any man has a right to his private life. Even the president of their country.
The French never understood what was the big deal about President Clinton’s affairs.
And Roman Polansky is a respected celebrity in France where his talent erases his criminal record.
So it is indeed impossible for a French to see a fellow citizen leaving handcuffed an American courtroom before being proven guilty.
As a French native, I share the embarrassment and the sense of loss of a nation that hoped DSK could be the next French president.
As an American citizen, I am proud of a country that takes a black working class woman as seriously as a white wealthy man.
Sharing two cultures means living in an ambivalent world. In this particular story, ambivalence helps me to understand the two countries I love.

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