Best frenemies: IMF boss case shows France-US bond

By Jill Lawless

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 26 2011 7:35 a.m. MDT

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and President Barack Obama are greeted by French President Sarkozy as they arrive at the G8 Summit, in Deauville, France, Thursday, May 26, 2011.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

PARIS — France and the United States have a lot in common— revolutionary heritage, love of glamour, strong self-belief as a global leader, even an appetite for McDonald's.

President Barack Obama arrived for a G-8 summit Thursday in the French resort of Deauville, where he will meet President Nicolas Sarkozy and extol the importance of a close, if sometimes rocky, relationship.

The arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on attempted rape charges in New York has revived deeply rooted stereotypes of Americans as "cowboys" and amoral French, prompting fears of a new schism between countries that have long been strong allies, if not always the best of friends.

"Emotionally the affair has revealed the rift that may exist between the two countries," said French political analyst Dominique Moisi. "For the Americans, France is not truly a democratic country. And for the French, America is not a perfectly civilized country."

A mutual suspicion last seen when relations chilled in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war re-emerged after the May 14 arrest of Strauss-Kahn on allegations that he tried to rape a hotel maid. He denies the charges and remains on bail and under house arrest in a New York townhouse as he awaits trial.

France and the United States are united by political and economic interests, but in some areas, like sex and justice, they remain divided by a cultural chasm.

In the U.S., freedom of speech is a core value. France's respect for privacy means the personal lives of public figures like Strauss-Kahn — a well-known womanizer — are considered off-limits for the press.

In France, the presumption of innocence is so strongly held that pictures of criminal suspects in handcuffs are outlawed.

The U.S prides itself on treating everyone equally before the law. But many French people reacted with horror to images of a powerful political insider paraded cuffed and unshaven by police on a "perp walk."

In France, the arrest and those images prompted shock — and even anger. Environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said France's image was a victim of the case. Prominent conservative lawmaker Bernard Debre was among those who called it "humiliating for our country."

U.S. tabloids, meanwhile, reveled in the sight of a powerful European, head of a body that dispenses billions in loans to shore up the world economy, brought low. The Daily News' frontpage headline "Le Perv" was one of the more succinctly humorous — or xenophobic.

But after the shock of the first few days, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have been publicly silent on the case, not wanting to ruffle a relationship that Obama has made a priority. When Sarkozy visited the White House in January, Obama assured him that "we don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people."

The remark annoyed British commentators, who felt France had eclipsed Britain's coveted "special relationship" with the U.S.

It's a marked improvement from the dark days of 2003, when the U.S. Congress cafeteria sold "freedom fries" amid a wave of anti-French sentiment triggered by the France's opposition to the Iraq war.

"It is a completely different ball game" to 2003, Moisi said. "The two countries have come closer to each other in the last few years. ... The political will on both sides is to keep the relationship very strong."

The relationship has flourished under conservative President Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his unabashed admiration for the United States.

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