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The other night, I went to a screening of the new Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris,” in which Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, an adorably neurotic American writer who finds himself completely seduced by the City of Light. Allen must feel the same way. His opening sequence lingers over all the pretty parts of Paris: the Tuilieries, Place Vendôme, the Seine, the Christian Dior store. All Pender wants to do is roam the streets and take it all in, preferably in the rain, when Paris is at its most beautiful, as he says again and again. Then nostalgia kicks in. Even better than Paris present during a downpour is its past, in this case the Twenties, when Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dalí and Picasso were living it up in boozy Bohemian style. Those were the days!
Not surprisingly, Allen’s Parisian fantasy is stocked with French beauties, including Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Léa Seydoux and Marion Cotillard. As for French men, Allen didn’t bother with them. Aside from a bumbling private eye, who has one line, the entire male population is dismissed as one big womanizing cliché. When Bruni’s museum tour guide explains that Rodin was able to love both his wife and his mistress, Pender’s response is that French men “are much more evolved than we are.”
How long can that legacy last? In 70 years, will the current crop of French news makers have been romanticized into fading lotharios? Will Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the embattled managing director of the International Monetary Fund, be remembered as a national embarrassment and accused sex offender or just another red-blooded Frenchman with a reputation to uphold? At 62, wrinkled, with a head full of gray hair, bags under his eyes and a fat gut, DSK was still, at least until last Saturday, known as “The Great Seducer,” a man who loves women, allegedly with all his might. The three wives, the tryst at Davos, the legendary libido — “So what?” he said. He couldn’t help it. French men have been conditioned to help themselves.
The stories of DSK’s unchecked urges remind me of my own unpleasant experience with an aggressive French finance man. After our first date, he sent me links to movie reviews (“Sex and the City” among them) on a Socialist Web site, the name of which I can’t recall. On our second date, he asked if he could stop at his apartment to check the commodities market between drinks and dinner. One minute he was looking up the price of corn, the next I was dodging 200 pounds of wildly tone-deaf advances. That’s not to say that two French Socialists with a 30-year age gap may have anything in common except a belief there is nothing wrong with a Gallic lunge.
Whether DSK is guilty or innocent of attempted rape, wrongful imprisonment and sexual abuse of a 32-year-old West African chambermaid who lives in the Bronx, the immediate reaction from the French press is emblematic of the country’s attitude toward its men of power. When news of the allegations broke, the maid was barely mentioned. The issue wasn’t sexual misconduct but political conspiracy and the indiscretion of the American judicial system. Showing a rich man in handcuffs is très gauche.
Bernard-Henri Lévy, whom we can thank for pointing out that Strauss-Kahn’s room number at the Sofitel matches the date of the Socialist Primaries in France, vouched for the accused in the Daily Beast on the basis of their 20-year friendship. BHL was made “nauseous” by the schadenfreude of DSK’s French political rivals, and was just as outraged at the “American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other.”
And it’s not just a case of French men past their prime defending their own. There’s Ben Stein, game show host/right wing windbag, who was personally offended by Strauss-Kahn’s abrupt downgrade in accommodations from the $3,000 a night Sofitel suite to the less cushy confines of Rikers Island, where he could be checked in for at least six months. Stein’s logic dictates that Strauss-Kahn is most likely innocent because top economists simply don’t rape maids. “Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes?” he wrote in a post on The American Spectator. “Is it likely that just by chance this hotel maid found the only one in this category?” Anyone? Bueller?
The latest reports have Strauss-Kahn on suicide watch. He will not be running against Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s French elections as planned. But never say never. If cleared of the charges, who knows? Mel Gibson just received a standing ovation at Cannes.